Cyber Security

Police uses Google to identify Devices Close to Crime Scenes

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Google can track you wherever you go even when the Google’s Location History feature is disabled. It is revealed that other Google apps like Maps or daily weather update service on Android allows Google to continuously collect your precise latitude and longitude.

According to Google, they use this location-tracking features to improve its users’ experience, like personalized maps, recommendations based on places you visited before, help finding your phone, real-time traffic updates about your commute, and more useful ads.

It is also known that Google could share your location data with federal authorities in criminal investigations when asked with a warrant.

Google ‘SensorVault’ Database Help Police Solve Crimes

Google also helps federal authorities to identify suspects of crimes by sharing location history of all devices that passed through crime scenes over a certain time period.

Google does not share personal information of all nearby users, instead it asks the police to first analyze location history of all users and filter the results to only a few selected users to receive their names, email addresses, and other personal data from Google.

Google maintains a database, known as Sensorvault more than a decade that contains detailed location records from hundreds of millions of phones around the world. They share these details with authorities nationwide with warrants to help in criminal cases.

It is reported that numerous such requests to search from the Google’s Sensorvault database have increased in the last six months. It is estimated that the company receives at least 180 requests in a week.

How does Google SensorVault Database become useful to Law Enforcements?

In order to find location data, law enforcement needs to get a “geofence” warrant. Let us take a look at the step-by-step methods required for Google to share location data when “legally” required:

  • The authorities approach Google with a geofence warrant looking for smartphones Google that had recorded around the crime scene.
  • On receiving the warrant, Google collects location information from its Sensorvault database and sends it to investigators, with each device identified by an anonymous ID code and not the actual identity of the devices.
  • The data are reviewed by the investigators to find patterns of the devices near the crime scene. They can request further location data on devices from Google that appear relevant to see the particular device movement beyond the original area defined in the warrant.
  • The investigators then filter the results to a few devices, which they think may belong to suspects or witnesses. Google then discloses the real name, email address and other data associated with the devices.

The entire process was reported by The New York Times when federal agents requested the location data to investigate a string of bombings around Austin, Texas.

This technique was first used by the Federal agents to catch criminals in 2016. Later on, this method has spread to local departments across the country, including in California, Florida, Minnesota, and Washington.

Even though the technique has been proven to work, it is not a foolproof way to catch criminals. Certain reports by NYT shows that police had mistakenly used this data to accuse innocents. It is common that law enforcement seeks help from tech companies during criminal investigations, but the use of location history databases like Sensorvault has raised concerns regarding privacy of users, data collection and about innocent being accused and incriminated.

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