According to a new report from a Raleigh, N.C. television affiliate WRAL, Google might have quietly helped local detectives in their pursuit of two gunmen who committed separate crimes roughly one-a-half years apart. How? According to the story, Raleigh police presented the company with warrants not for information about specific suspects but rather data from all the mobile devices that were within a certain distance of the respective crime scenes at the time the crimes were committed.
In one of its homicide cases, Raleigh police reported asked Google to provide unique data for anyone within a 17-acre area that includes both homes and businesses; in the other, it asked for user data across “dozens” of apartment units at a particular complex.
As the outlet notes, most modern phones, tablets and laptops have built-in location tracking that pings some combination of GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile networks to determine each device’s position. Users can switch off location tracking, but if they’re using a cellular network or relying on WiFi to connect, their devices are still transmitting their coordinates to third parties.
Google hasn’t responded to a request for more information that we’d sent off earlier today. But in response to WRAL’s investigation, a company spokesman declined to comment on specific cases or discuss whether Google has fought requests from the Raleigh investigators, saying only that: “We have a long-established process that determines how law enforcement may request data about our users. We carefully review each request and always push back when they are overly broad.”
According to a Raleigh Police Department spokesperson, the requested account data was not limited to devices running Google’s Android operating system but rather all devices running any kind of location-enabled Google app. The department began using the tactic after learning about a similar search warrant in California’s Orange County, said this spokesperson.
Meanwhile, a Wake County district attorney tells WRAL that the data that investigators have sought from Google contain only anonymized account numbers without any content included, though it sounds from her comments as though Google has been complicit in supplying further information when forced to do so.
“We’re not getting text messages or emails or phone calls without having to go through a different process and having additional information that might lead us to a specific individual,” she tells WRAL.
Google says that in recent years, it’s been receiving between disclosure requests for between 75,000 and 80,000 users every six months. As of January 2017, which is the last time it publicly updated its transparency report
about requests for user data, it says it produced data roughly 65 percent of the time that it was asked to do so.
Google doesn’t publicly disclose what kind of data it provides to governmental and other authorities. Further, in cases where it does hand over data, it may be under court order not to identify the individuals impacted.
Either way, the area-based search warrants Raleigh detectives have sought seem to be a newer trend, one that will undoubtedly concern Fourth Amendment advocates anew. For one thing, in addition to potentially violating the privacy of Google users and subjecting them to unreasonable searches, one can imagine people being wrongly accused by sheer dint of being tied to a murder scene via cell phone location records.
In fact, it has happened already.
It’s also easy to imagine that someone with nefarious designs might leave his or her cell phone behind. Indeed, says WRAL’s investigation, in two separate cases where Raleigh investigators have presented Google with area-based search warrants — one involving a fire and another sexual battery — there was not evidence that either the arsonist or attacker had a cell phone.