Google's mass-collection of user data is the police's new favorite tool

Google's mass-collection of user data is the police's new favorite tool

The omniscient tech giant is making blue lives a lot easier

CultureMay 08, 2019 By Will Brendza

The year is 2019 and things on planet Earth are going full Orwell.

Our televisions and cell phones are listening to our conversations. Our computers are watching us with cyclopes eyes. Facebook is compiling all of our consumer information, our likes and dislikes, clicks and scrolls. And Google is tracking our every movement, constantly, even if you tell them not to.

In fact, Google is tracking a lot more than just your whereabouts. As they discussed at their recent I/O’19 keynote address, they’re tracking everything you’ve ever done with a computer or smartphone in the last eight years: every search, upload, article you’ve read, every reminder, photo, video, contact, calendar date, your cell phone configuration preferences, even what kind of food you eat and a whole lot more.

All of which is going into a Google data vault where it’s stored indefinitely (unless you do something to delete it).

That is great news for police officers. This newfangled technology is making blue lives a lot easier. Now, when police don’t have any suspects for a crime and need to find one, all they have to do is file a warrant with Google, who is legally bound to turn over any and all information relating to the crime/crime scene. Police can then see who was in the area at the time of the crime and start making arrests.  

It’s a futuristic “dragnet” for police; a techy new tool that allows them to trawl for criminals like industrial fishermen out trawling for mackerel.

Let’s back up a second, though, because it’s important to understand the technology, to understand why police are so excited about itand why it’s making so many so uneasy.

First of all (and perhaps obviously) Google tracks smart phones constantly. That includes about two billion android devices, which use Google’s operating software, and hundreds of millions of iPhone devices using Google maps or Google search.

Meaning, that the cell phone in your pocket is almost certainly being tracked right now — even if it isn’t connected to WIFI, even if it’s out of cell-service and even if it’s off or dead. Hell, even if you’ve paused your location history services, Google can still get location data from it.

Google might seem like it’s upfront about asking permission to track your location history. Some apps will ask to “enable location services,” and, as mentioned, Google also allows users to temporarily pause their location history, in their account settings. Which they say, will prevent them from tracking where you are:

“You can turn off Location History at any time,” their support page on the topic reads. “With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”

That sounds nice. But it isn’t necessarily true.

Many Google apps store time-stamped location data without asking to do so. Maps, for instance, stores a snapshot of your location every time you open it. The automatic weather updates for Android phones also pinpoint roughly where you’re at every time it updates. And even simply using Google search (to answer a dumb question or look something up) will pin your exact latitude and longitude down to the square foot.

Even if you “turn off” your Google location history in settings, there could still be an app open in the background that’s keeping tabs on your phone. That makes it challenging to totally disable location services — something that should be easy to do.

“If you’re going to allow users to turn off something called ‘Location History,’ then all the places where you maintain location history should be turned off,” Jonathan Mayer, a Princeton computer scientist told AP News. “That seems like a pretty straightforward position to have.”

On top of your location, Google is also keeping track of every search you’ve ever made, every video you’ve ever watched, every chat dialogue you’ve ever had, everything you’ve done online even if you were in incognito mode. Going “incognito” may hide you from the prying eyes of hackers, might hide your cookies and internet history from your significant other, but not from Google. The all-knowing, all-seeing eye of this omniscient tech company is not so easily escaped.

All of that data (and a lot more) is saved and stored to your Google account.

Want to see for yourself? Go to takeout.google.com. There, you can download your everything in a convenient little zip file, which you can then browse like a personal library of you. And if you haven’t manually deleted your Google data, or manually set up auto-delete in your account settings, everything you’ve done online will be in there.

Which is disconcerting. What if that information ended up in the wrong hands? What if all of our data which was collected largely without consent, was used against us somehow?

Of course, as far as Google is concerned, this information is for advertisement purposes only. They may have removed the motto “Don’t Be Evil” from their corporate code of conduct, but their intentions here are purely capitalistic, they claim. They want to collect and interpret all of your data so that they can target you with the right ads at the right time to “improve your searches.” That’s it. No harm intended.

So, society continues to let them gather and store all of our data en masse. Occasionally people will ask questions and make a stir. Eventually someone from Google may have to sit before congress to be reprimanded and to and get asked irrelevant questions. But then we’ll let them off the hook just like we let Zuckerberg off. Just like these tech companies always get let off the hook. Because, if they’re spying on people for marketing reasons, it’s not malevolent, so it’s not really spying.

Right?

Well, sure. Whatever you tell yourself to fall asleep at night. The more immediate issue is that cops have started using this data as a resource for doing police-work. They’re using Google’s data collection to lock people up for crimes they may (or may not) have committed.

For instance, in March 2017 in North Carolina, police were looking for a suspect who had shot and killed a taxi driver named Nwabu Efobi. But they had no leads. The case was quickly going cold. So, they issued a search warrant to Google, ordering the tech giant to hand over all account identifiers for every cell phone that was in the vicinity of the murder at the time of the crime.

Within a matter of months, that warrant had resulted in an arrest and the case was closed. All thanks to Google’s comprehensive time-stamped location history.

But such lazy police-work doesn’t always end so well. In Arizona in 2018, police tried a similar tactic while investigating a drive-by shooting. They arrested Jorge Molina for the crime, claiming that they had pegged Molina to the murder using his Google location history, and some circumstantial video footage of someone firing a gun out of a white Honda Civic.

Molina spent a week in jail before investigators realized that they had the wrong man. Google had led them astray.

It’s unclear how often these kinds of warrants actually lead to arrests (or to the right arrests), since many of these investigations are still active and open. But what’s clear is that they are being used with increasing frequency by police departments across the country: the first time this tactic was used was in 2016 in North Carolina. Then in 2017 the practice spread to California, Florida, Minnesota and Washington. And in 2018, Google received an astounding 180 of these warrants from judges around the US, one Google employee told the New York Times.

Clearly, the word is out. Police departments are becoming increasingly aware of Google’s treasure trove of data and they aren’t afraid to use it. It’s safe to assume, too, that this tactic is only going to become more popular as time goes on and as Google accumulates even more data, and their system of collection gets more advanced.

Unless some very strict and very well-crafted privacy laws are put into place to protect The People from such massive surveillance and data-gathering operations, we can expect Google search warrants to become a regular tool on the policeman’s belt, right there next to their handcuffs and their tasers.