Police Obtain Warrants To Find Out Which Google Users Were Present At Crime Scenes

Police in North Carolina are securing search warrants to access Google's data on who was at, or near, the scene of the crime.

Police potentially use Google user GPS information to find suspects.
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Police in North Carolina are securing search warrants to access Google's data on who was at, or near, the scene of the crime.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, police are using a controversial tactic for finding suspects, WRAL reported. Four times so far, police have secured search warrants that require Google to release vast amounts of data on its users, so the police can identify suspects.

Last month, detectives took out search warrants on March 7 and March 8, each for a different crime. One for the murder of Adrian Pugh in 2015, and another for the murder of Nwabu Efobi in 2016.

For the murder investigation of Adrian Pugh, detectives are seeking data for all Google users that were present at the time of the crime inside a 17-acre area. On the other hand, detectives are seeking data for the Efobi case that’s a much smaller perimeter, focusing on units inside the Washington Terrace apartment complex.

The data that police are seeking includes anonymized numerical identifiers and time-stamped location coordinates. Detectives would parse down the list, eventually arriving at a shorter list of users they’re interested in investigating. The process would repeat itself until detectives have a final list of users. At this point, they expect Google to provide identifying personal information, including birthdays.

All this can happen without any of the users receiving notification of the warrant. The user would also not be notified if their personal information is shared with authorities.

It’s unknown whether, and how much, Google has shared with North Carolina police.

Google's privacy policy as it relates to search warrants.
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Google is widely used, not just as a search engine but also as the provider of Gmail and other popular apps, like Google Drive. In 2016, Tech Crunch said that Gmail had one billion active users each month. The data that Google can collect on its users include the person’s location, browsing history, and Youtube viewing history. Because of its widespread use, Google has a large amount of data that is highly valuable, not just to advertisers but also to law enforcement.

The Supreme Court in 2012 provided guidelines for authorities seeking cellphone GPS data on citizens. For one, police must get a search warrant if they are going to monitor someone’s life, which includes monitoring cellphone usage. Also, seized cellphones also require a warrant before they can be searched, detailed NPR.

However, there has not been a ruling on the methods that North Carolina police are using, and some experts are skeptical about its validity. Steven Saad, a defense attorney, is one of them.

“This is almost the opposite technique, where they get a search warrant in the hopes of finding somebody later to follow or investigate…It’s really hard to say that complies with most of the search warrant or probable cause rules that we’ve got around the country.”

Another lawyer, Stephanie Lacambra, suggested that this method is merely a shortcut that is not legal.

“To just say, ‘Criminals commit crimes, and we know that most people have cell phones,’ that should not be enough to get the geo-location on anyone that happened to be in the vicinity of a particular incident during a particular time.”