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Outsourcing Police Investigations to Google Risks Privacy and Justice

The police state is officially active in all our lives. It's becoming real out here. We all have phones and can be tracked. It seems, however that even if you have done nothing, police makes mistakes and so does technology.

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n December, Jorge Molina was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joseph Knight, an airport worker who was shot dead as he cycled home in the early hours of March 14, 2018, in Avondale, Arizona. The United States witnesses around 17,000 murders a year, but what made Knight’s case different was that police were led to their suspect only after asking Google to send Global Positioning System (GPS) data on all the mobile phones passing through Knight’s cycling route.

The data revealed that a suspect vehicle, captured on surveillance footage, had taken the route. In receiving data from Google on all the devices that passed through it, the Avondale Police Department not only provided another example of what’s becoming an increasingly common practice in law enforcement, it also set a new precedent for other police departments elsewhere in the US. Even though it’s now a common and familiar practice for police to exhaustively trace the digital footprints of already identified suspects, it’s a relatively new development for them to actually gather the digital footprints of numerous people in order to home in on a suspect in the first place.

That the Avondale Police Department was able to identify Molina using aggregated, area-based Google data is certainly an impressive feat. However, it required the filing of a “reverse search warrant,” which involves applying for information on a group of people in order to narrow down the search to specific persons of interest. And because this entailed the handing over of data belonging to individuals with no connection to Knight’s death, it raises some alarming questions about privacy. It also raises questions about the reliability of the arrests and convictions police secure, given that there is at least one case on record of an individual being wrongly imprisoned as a result of phone-sourced location data.

This case of wrongful imprisonment relates to the arrest and conviction of Lisa Marie Roberts, who in 2014 was released from prison after having pleaded guilty in 2004 to manslaughter charges in the death of her girlfriend, Jerri Lee Williams. Roberts had submitted a guilty plea solely on the basis of evidence provided by cell tower records, which had put her in the vicinity of the crime. However, despite her confession, a judge ultimately overturned the conviction, arguing that cell tower records alone weren’t convincing enough as evidence, and that a jury most likely wouldn’t have found her guilty if she’d stood trial.

Such an outcome reveals the folly of relying on location data alone when seeking to explain a crime, and while cell tower records aren’t exactly the same as GPS data collected from smartphones by Google, it offers a stark warning, especially because US police forces have been increasingly prodding Google for such data in recent months and years.

For example, the North Carolina-based WRAL news agency reported that, on at least four occasions in 2017, the Raleigh Police Department had obtained warrants to receive Google data on any device that had been within the area of certain crimes at specific times. In one case of homicide, the department asked for information associated with the Google accounts located within the geographical region defined as being within 150 meters of the GPS coordinates 35.785556 and -78.617145 between 6 pm and 7 pm Eastern time, on November 7, 2016, and between 5:25 pm and 6:25 pm Eastern time on November 8, 2016.

More specifically, such “information” comprises anything that could be attached to a Google account, such as internet protocol addresses, email addresses, payment info and names. It’s usually more than enough to identify someone, which is why the authorities haven’t been asking for it only in North Carolina, but also in other states.

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