The United States law enforcement authorities have used information from a Google database called Sensorvault – a collection of detailed recordings of the daily route and geographic position of hundreds of millions of users from all over the world, in order to solve criminal cases.
Although the technology can identify suspects nearby the places where crimes were committed, there is the risk for law enforcement to arrest innocent witnesses, underlining the impact mass data collection may have on our lives.
Why does Google have this data ?
The Sensorvault database is connected to a Google service called Location History. The feature, which became available in 2009, is available on Apple and Android devices.
Location History is not activated by default. Google warns users to use it when they install some services – traffic alerts from Google Maps for example or uploading photos to the Google Photos platform.
If the Location History feature is turned on, Google will collect information as long as the user uses the account and has Google apps installed on the device that depend on the localization features. Google can collect data even when the user does not use these apps, if the settings of the device allow this.
Google says that the data collected is being used for ads and to measure how efficient ads are.
Google also uses aggregated information in order to make traffic estimates or to identify peak hours of some stores. Users who activate Location History can see a history of their activity and can receive recommendations based on the places they visit. Google says t hat the data is not sold and not shared with other companies.
How law enforcement is using Sensorvault
For years law enforcement agencies asked Google, through warrants, for information regarding the location of some people. However new warrants, most often called “geofence”, specify an area nearby the place where a crime was committed. Google is looking into the Sensorvault database for devices that were nearby the crime scene at the time of the crime and the information is gets shared with law enforcement. Initially, the information is being sent as anonymous identification numbers which authorities investigate to identify the type of movement that might be relevant for the case.
When law enforcement picks the devices that might belong to criminals, Google then provides the names of the users and other identification elements.