Google Helps Police Locate Devices Near Crime Scenes Using Location Data

    It's no secret that Google tracks you everywhere, even if you turned off Google’s location history feature.

    As an Associated Press study in 2018 showed , Google apps, such as Maps or Weather on Android, allow the company to continuously collect your geolocation.


    According to Google, the company uses location tracking to improve the performance of its applications for users. Here is an incomplete list of reasons for collecting geolocation:

    • Personalized cards
    • Recommendations based on the places you visited
    • Help finding a phone
    • Real-time traffic information updates
    • More targeted ads

    In addition, Google may transfer your whereabouts to the federal authorities during criminal investigations, after a formal request.

    Google’s SensorVault Database Helps Police Uncover Crimes

    Not many people know that Google helps federal authorities identify crime suspects by giving them the location history of all devices that went through crime scenes over time.

    It should be noted that Google does not share complete information about all devices at once; instead, anonymized data is provided and the police first analyzes the location history of all devices and narrows the query results to several devices, and only then Google provides all the device information including the device name, email addresses and other personal data.

    A new report by The New York Times reports that for nearly 10 years, Google has maintained a database internally called Sensorvault. The database contains detailed location records from hundreds of millions of devices worldwide. Information from the database can be obtained after an official request during the investigation of crimes.
    According to several (anonymous) insiders from Google, the number of queries to the Google Sensorvault database has risen sharply over the past six months, and in one week the company receives up to 180 queries.

    How do law enforcement use the Google SensorVault database?

    To obtain location data, law enforcement agencies must obtain a so-called geofence warrant.

    Google transmits location data when required "by law" as follows:

    • Authorities turned to Google with a warrant for geolocation in search of smartphones that Google recorded at the crime scene
    • After receiving an order, Google collects location information from its Sensorvault database and sends it to investigators, each device being identified by an anonymous identification code, and not by the actual device identifier
    • Investigators then analyze the data, look for patterns and patterns of movement to see if the devices are related to crime. Also, investigators are asking Google for additional device data to see how a particular device moves outside the original area.
    • When investigators narrow down the results to several devices that they think may belong to suspects or witnesses, Google discloses the real name, email address, and other device-related data.

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    A NYT report explained the whole process by the case of federal agents requesting location data to investigate a series of bombings around Austin, Texas.

    Federal agents first used this technique in 2016. To date, this technique is used in local police departments in the United States.

    Although technology has proven to be effective, it is not a reliable way to obtain crime information. Some cases noted in the New York Times report showed how the police used this data to charge the innocent. One person was jailed for a week last year during a murder investigation after being registered near a murder site and then released after investigators identified and arrested another suspect.

    Unsurprisingly, law enforcement agencies seek help from technology giants like Google during criminal investigations, but the use of location history databases such as Sensorvault is a concern. Concerns about user privacy, about data collection, about an innocent person who might be detained because he just walked in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

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