On March 16, 2017, a five-alarm fire ripped through the unfinished Metropolitan apartment building on West Jones Street… About two months later, Raleigh police obtained a search warrant for Google account IDs that showed up near the block of the Metropolitan between 7:30 and 10 p.m. the night of the fire… In addition to anonymized numerical identifiers, the warrant calls on Google to release time stamped location coordinates for every device that passed through the area. Detectives wrote that they’d narrow down that list and send it back to the company, demanding “contextual data points with points of travel outside of the geographical area” during an expanded timeframe. Another review would further cull the list, which police would use to request user names, birth dates and other identifying information of the phones’ owners.
“Do people understand that in sharing that information with Google, they’re also potentially sharing it with law enforcement?” asks a former Durham prosecutor who directs the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. And Stephanie Lacambra, criminal defense staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also criticized the procedure. “To just say, ‘Criminals commit crimes, and we know that most people have cell phones,’ that should not be enough to get the geo-location on anyone that happened to be in the vicinity of a particular incident during a particular time.” She believes that without probable cause the police department is “trying to use technology as a hack for their job… It does not have to be that we have to give up our privacy rights in order to participate in the digital revolution.”
Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it succinctly. “At the end of the day, this tactic unavoidably risks getting information about totally innocent people.”