Why The Police Are Quietly Turning To Google To Find Criminals

Following this weekend's revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a polling and analytics firm partly funded by billionaire Trump donor Robert Mercer, Democrats have renewed their cries for increased oversight of tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google to monitor whether they are being responsible stewards of the reams of personal data that Americans and people all around the world fork over to them on a daily basis.

But one issue that has fallen by the wayside as lawmakers have zeroed in on talk about so-called "Russian interference" is how do Facebook, Google and their ilk protect US citizens' civil liberties from unlawful search and seizure?

As it turns out, they don't - at least, not really.


As North Carolina TV station WRAL points out in a recent expose, Law enforcement are becoming more aggressive in requesting data gleaned from individuals' cellphones when they're investigating major crimes like murder, rape and arson - even when these requests are unjustifiably broad-based by the standards of applying for search warrants.

In one controversial technique that's increasingly being employed in these types of investigations, police draw a perimeter around the area where a crime - like a murder, for example - occurred. They then apply (and typically receive approval) for a search warrant to collect the data from all smart phones that crossed into the perimeter around the time that the crime allegedly occurred.

WRAL uses the example of two shootings that happened on opposite sides of the city years apart. Detectives on each case used this controversial new technique, which involves requesting the metadata from any nearby phones months or even years after the crimes occurred.


But constitutional lawyers are raising legal objections to this technique, which they say allows for repeated unjustified infringement on the rights of innocent individuals who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time...

Raleigh police say the cases are unrelated. But in March 2017, months after investigations began into both shootings, separate detectives on each case, one day apart, employed an innovative strategy in criminal investigations.

On a satellite image, they drew shapes around the crime scenes, marking the coordinates on the map. Then they convinced a Wake County judge they had enough probable cause to order Google to hand over account identifiers on every single cell phone that crossed the digital cordon during certain times.

In at least four investigations last year – cases of murder, sexual battery and even possible arson at the massive downtown fire in March 2017 – Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects, but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime, according to a WRAL News review of court records. These warrants often prevent the technology giant for months from disclosing information about the searches not just to potential suspects, but to any users swept up in the search.

One of the biggest problems with these types of techniques is that few people really understand how much information they're surrendering to Google and Facebook, and law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of this ignorance in a way that smashes civil liberties, but does little to increase the chances that a crime will be solved.

City and county officials say the practice is a natural evolution of criminal investigative techniques. They point out that, by seeking search warrants, they're carefully balancing civil rights with public safety.

Defense attorneys and privacy advocates, both locally and nationally, aren't so sure.

They're mixed on how law enforcement turns to Google's massive cache of user data, especially without a clear target in mind. And they're concerned about the potential to snag innocent users, many of whom might not know just how closely the company tracks their every move.

"We are willingly sharing an awful lot of our lives with Google," said Jonathan Jones, a former Durham prosecutor who directs the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. "But do people understand that in sharing that information with Google, they're also potentially sharing it with law enforcement?"

Furthermore, while users can switch off location tracking, if a smart phone is connected to a cellular network, it will continue to transmit data about its whereabouts - and even if that data are less accurate, they can still be accessed by law enforcement.

Users can switch location tracking off to prevent the device from pinging GPS satellites. But if it's on a cellular network or connected to Wi-Fi, the device is still transmitting its coordinates to third parties, even if they're far less accurate than GPS.

A study by Quartz last year discovered that Google continued to track users' devices even when all GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular network settings were disabled on Android phones.

Raleigh police started using the technique after hearing about a similar warrant filed by the State Bureau of Investigations in Orange County back in 2017.

After receiving the initial list of names and metadata, the Raleigh PD continued to cull the list, asking for more data about each remaining name with each pass through. Law enforcement agencies note on each of these warrants that they disagree with Google's position that search warrants are necessary to access this data: Yet they continue to ask for the warrants.

But while these types of broad-based warrants raise myriad questions about their constitutionality, their effectiveness in actually leading to an arrest remains in doubt.

As WRAL pointed out, of the four cases discussed in their expose, only one has resulted in an arrest so far.

And because this information is typically requested months after the fact - while a search warrant is typically executed within 48 hours of receiving a judge's approval - the extent to which law enforcement are using this technique is difficult to quantify, because the orders remain under seal until they're executed (which often takes months).

Read an example of one of these warrants below:

Google Warrant by Anonymous JJ6eerL on Scribd