Google Hot On the Criminal’s Trail–Geofencing as Real Life Detective


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“I think I got him, boss.”  Tim McGee using geolocation tracking to hunt down a wanted suspect in the popular show, “NCIS.”

It’s not a scene from “NCIS” or “The Enemy Within” or any number of other crime shows that feature computer wizards tracking criminals or criminal suspects via their cell phone transmisions or geotracking data.

Jorge Molina in Goodyear, Ariz. Detectives arrested him last year in a murder investigation after requesting Google location data. When new information emerged, they released him and did not pursue charges. Alex Welsh for The New York Times

The warrants draw on Google’s huge database employees call Sensorvault and turn the business of tracking cellphone users’ locations into a real-life NCIS episode. You’ve seen it before when you get near a store where it knows you shop and a coupon pops up.  Crime solving is just the latest example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted among consumers, policymakers and regulators, tech companies have come under intensifying scrutiny over their data collection practices.

The Arizona case cited in a NY Times piece recently, demonstrates the promise and perils of the new investigative technique, whose use has risen sharply in the past six months, according to Google employees familiar with the requests. It can help solve crimes. But it can also snare innocent people.  It’s like ocean fishing with a net.  You maybe catch the fish you intended but a lot of innocent sea creatures are caught up as well, or worse, ensnared with plastic netting or other materials that gags or prevents them from feeding or going free.

Technology companies have for years responded to court orders for specific users’ information. The new warrants go further, the Times piece reports, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues. Often, Google employees said, the company responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices.

Law enforcement officials described the method as exciting, but cautioned that it was just one tool.

‘‘There are privacy concerns that we all have with our phones being tracked — and when those kinds of issues are relevant in a criminal case, that should give everybody serious pause,” said Catherine Turner, a Minnesota defense lawyer who is handling a case involving the technique.

Investigators who spoke with The New York Times said they had not sent geofence warrants to companies other than Google, and Apple said it did not have the ability to perform those searches. Google would not provide details on Sensorvault, but Aaron Edens, an intelligence analyst with the sheriff’s office in San Mateo County, Calif., who has examined data from hundreds of phones, said most Android devices and some iPhones he had seen had this data available from Google.

Beware, your phone is your identity card and like the police state we are not intended to be, can be used by the police wittingly or untwittingly when searching for that bad apples or prized fish.

The smartphone should come with the label “caveat emptor,” (buyer or purchaser beware) or its longer sister warning: Caveat emptor, quia ignorare non debuit quod jus alienum emit (“Let a purchaser beware, for he ought not to be ignorant of the nature of the property which he is buying from another party.”)


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