Sensorvault, a database comprised of location records from hundreds of millions of phones, is typically used to collect Google users’ information so that they can target users with more relevant and effective ads. Now, police officers are obtain “geofence” warrants that give them access to location data through Sensorvault, according to CNET.
The requests for these warrants have exponentially increased over the last six months, with Google receiving as many as 180 per week. In the requests, police provide a specific location and time, and Sensorvault provides anonymous information about the devices that were in that location during that window of time. This means that one request could provide police with information on dozens or even hundreds of devices.
Once police narrow that collection of devices down to ones they think may be relevant, Google provides the users’ names and other data. Google, however, insists that the amount of identifiable information is rather narrow.
“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said in a statement. “We have created a new process for these specific requests designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed and only producing information that identifies specific users where legally required.”
The concern is that such limited and circumstantial evidence creates false leads. But Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State who has worked on several cases involving these warrants, explains that the process is not of primary consequence in most investigations. “It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty. We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”
Innocent people, however, have been implicated in and arrested for crimes that they have no relation to thanks to the technology. According to the New York Times, detectives arrested Jorge Molina, an Arizona resident, in a murder investigation after they tracked his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. Molina spent almost a week in jail before other evidence became available and cleared Molina of the charges.