location sharing

You might not know that law enforcement agencies actually ask Google to provide results from their mobile device Location History database. In addition to this actually happening, you should also know that the number of queries seems to have increased considerably over the past six months. What we don’t know is how many times they are asking Google for these results, but we do know that the information can be used to narrow down which devices were used in a specific geographic location at a certain period of time. Further, the majority of devices that they can report on run Android OS, but some are also running Apple’s iOS. And if you ask me, that’s incredibly scary.

Of course, law enforcement claims that the information is being used to generate leads, but it makes you wonder if that’s all its doing. And are there any constitutional questions under the Fourth Amendment? If you’re not familiar the Fourth Amendment restricts the scope of warrants and mandates authorities to show probably cause in order to search in the first place. The New York Times reports the following:

The practice was first used by federal agents in 2016, according to Google employees, and first publicly reported last year in North Carolina. It has since spread to local departments across the country, including in California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington. This year, one Google employee said, the company received as many as 180 requests in one week. Google declined to confirm precise numbers.

The technique illustrates a phenomenon privacy advocates have long referred to as the “if you build it, they will come” principle — anytime a technology company creates a system that could be used in surveillance, law enforcement inevitably comes knocking. Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that authorities must obtain a search warrant and show probable cause to obtain location records from third parties like Google. Although, Google had already decided that they would demand warrants if they were being asked to hand over the data in the first place. The reason behind this was that each “geoforce warrant” would vary in terms of space. It could be a tiny space or it could cover larger areas covering multiple blocks. Depending on the period of time, this could potentially pull in hundreds of devices owned by many people. So is this even serving its intended purpose at all?

While some warrants have lead to crimes being solved, they have also resulted in authorities picking up the wrong person. A man in Phoenix, Jorge Molina, was arrested after police said that his phone was detected in the vicinity of a drive-by shooting. Molina spent a week in jail before friends were able to produce texts and Uber receipts backing up his alibi. While this might have been an innocent case, it meant that an innocent man had to spend time in jail, and he had to prove that he wasn’t involved in the crime.

The scariest part is that a person could check-in to their Google account using someone else’s phone, which could lead to a case of mistaken identity. Google is the primary company that appears to be fulfilling the warrants. Apple has indicated that they can’t provide this kind of information to the authorities. All-in-all this could definitely become a bigger issue in the months and years to come.