Google’s location history data shared routinely with police
Law enforcement officials in the US have been routinely mining Google’s location history data for criminal investigations. Requests have escalated in the last six months, according to The New York Times.
The location data resides in Sensorvault, a Google system that logs information provided by the search and advertising giant’s mobile applications. Applications may gather the data even when not running, depending on the phone’s settings. However, for Sensorvault to store their data a user must have opted in to Location History, a feature that Google introduced in 2009. It stores daily movements based on raw data communicated via these apps.
Police officers don’t request the phone data of a particular suspect. Instead, they serve reverse location warrants, also known as ‘geofence’ warrants. These request anonymous IDs and locations relating to all phones found in a particular area over a particular time.
Officers analyse this data, looking for movement patterns that correlate with potential suspects or witnesses. When they narrow down the search to a handful of devices, they can request those users’ names and other information from Google.
The report highlighted several instances in which federal law enforcement have used this technique. They include the March 2018 bombings in Austin, Texas, along with a 2016 murder in Florida.