As the police uses your geolocation to solve crimes

In aggregate your location data can be very useful for many functions of your smartphone. For example, the collected location data Google uses to display relevant to a particular user recommendations and advertising. The new material edition of “The New York Times” tells how the US law enforcement agencies are increasingly requesting these data in the framework of criminal investigations. Although location and be for law enforcement is useful, such excessive practice can “trap” the innocent.

What’s going on from a technical point of view?

Today, “The New York Times” published a detailed description of the function “History location”, which Google introduced back in 2009. This function saves the history of movements of your device, and therefore you, even if you don’t use any Google services, that are allowed to access your geolocation. This means that tracking and recording is done in the background, even if the user has not opened any application that would use location detection (e.g., Google Maps).

Google notes that “location History” provides users with “advantages” such as “personalized card recommendation based on places you visited, help in finding the phone, traffic updates in real time about your trips and more relevant advertising.”

This feature “is disabled by default for your Google account” and must be enabled manually. Users can see this feature in action at their location history in Google Maps with the ability to edit and delete individual entries. Location history can also be disabled for each individual device. Google over the past year has sought to facilitate user interaction with the settings of this function.

It is important to note that the location history is different from activity on the Internet and apps used Google Assistant. Although it uses location data, it is more focused on what users are doing on their smartphones, but not in real life.

How law enforcement agencies use it?

Location history and not active in Internet or apps – is stored in the Google database, known as Sensorvault. According to the NYT, these records span a decade and involve hundreds of millions of devices around the world.

When some area of a crime, the police will seek a warrant for that Google “provided information about all the devices that were located close to the scene of the murder, potentially locking the whereabouts of anyone in this area.”

This year, according to one of employees of Google, the company received approximately 180 requests per week. Google declined to provide more exact figures.

In an interview with “The New York Times,” the Google employees said that over the past six months, the frequency of requests for location data from the police especially increased. For the first time this practice was used in the 2016 Federal agents, but local police use this only in California, Washington, Minnesota and Florida.

The process of obtaining a warrant

  1. Law enforcement request “warrant geofence” for some time and the district judge.
  2. Google takes the subpoena and takes the data about location of all devices to the desired area of Sensorvault. At this stage, Google marks all withdrawn from Sensorvault information special anonymous ID numbers.
  3. The police use this data to find the “space and mobility” relating to the crime.
  4. Another query is sent to Google for devices that belong to the possible suspects and witnesses, and only then the company discloses the names of these users and other information.

The NYT article contains an interactive infographic of the entire process, which definitely worth a look. Google itself has created and adheres to this two-step process of providing information when it is first transmitted only to anonymous data and then declassified.

Meanwhile, these data are not a “silver bullet” for the detectives that some law enforcement officers are recognized given that the underlying system can not provide a high level of accuracy and speed of providing the requested data. Given the growing requests data from Google sometimes you have to wait for several weeks and sometimes months.

Although Google is a huge database and volume cheshireman data folded even imagine, the company still can’t record every single phone. And even if the location is read every few minutes, it is at the time of the shot or the attack may be exactly what neskolkomi window.

Why is that problematic

It is proved that this method works, but at the same time edition of “The New York Times” are already documented cases showing how the police used these are not always accurate data for the prosecution of innocent people.

Technology companies have for years responded to court orders to provide information about specific users. New orders, which the court sends to Google, go even further, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of any other evidence. Often, according to Google employees, the company is forced to provide only one order location information of tens or hundreds of devices.

It became known also that in some jurisdictions require that investigators returned to the judge and got a second warrant to obtain the identification information. Using another order, the investigators can obtain more extensive data, including date and time of the location, and even e-mails.

For more detailed examples you can read the full article in The New York Times.

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