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Google is facing increased pressure from the U.S. government to share location information, possibly on thousands of innocent people, Forbes can reveal. That’s because of a string of so-called “reverse location” orders.
Here’s how it works: cops send Google specific coordinates and timezones within which crimes were committed. Then Google is asked to provide information on all users within those locations at those times, most likely including data on many innocent people. Those users could be Android phone owners, anyone running Google Maps or any individual running Google services on their cell, not just criminal suspects.
Now another order has been uncovered in Virginia. And it doesn’t contain some crucial limitations to protect innocents’ privacy.
“This fishing expedition infringes on the privacy rights of so many possible people who had the misfortune of being in an area where a crime is alleged to be committed,” said Jerome Greco, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “We should not allow for such broad access to the data of so many on the mere speculation that a suspect may have used a cellphone near the location of the crime.”
Hunting for Androids in Virginia
The most recent order on Google, unearthed by Forbes earlier this week, came from the FBI in Henrico, Virginia. They went to Google after four separate robberies in which unidentified, armed individuals entered and stole from the same Dollar Tree store between March and September this year. The manager of the Dollar Tree was also robbed at gunpoint while dropping off money at a Wells Fargo night-deposit box located just down the road from the store.
The FBI outlined a zone of land in Hernico, Virginia, for Google, asking the tech giant to hand over information on all users within.Forbes
The warrant asks for location histories held by Google for anyone within three separate areas—including regions around the Dollar Tree store and the Wells Fargo address—during the times and days the five robberies took place. The FBI also wanted identifying information of Google account holders in those areas, two of which had a 375-meter radius. The other had a 300-meter radius.
Google Maps shows that a significant number of residences, shops and restaurants are within the zones outlined in the warrant.
The Dollar Tree in Hernico, Virginia was targeted by a spate of robberies investigated by the FBI.Forbes
Anyone in those regions who used Google services during those times could’ve been ensnared by the data trap. But, for unknown reasons, no records were returned. Forbes couldn’t find any charges against individuals named as suspects in the document. Forbes also contacted the prosecutor who signed off on the search warrant, but had not received a response at the time of publication.
Is Google fighting back?
It's unclear if Google is actively fighting the government on the data demands. There were no court filings showing Google actively appealed. A spokesperson for the company declined to provide any more detail, but did add: “We always push back on overly broad requests for our users' data.”
Google also didn’t provide information back in August, when it was told by Portland, Maine, investigators to carry out reverse location searches. In that case, the cops found a novel way to limit the scope of the warrant: Google would only have to return information for users who were within at least two of the locations at the specified times. No such limitations were put in place in Virginia.
Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at digital and human rights body the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the order in Hernico could’ve swept up the locations of thousands of innocent people. “Requests like this act as ‘general warrants’ and may violate the Fourth Amendment because they are not tied to a specific device,” Lynch added. The Fourth Amendment provides Americans with a right to protect themselves from unreasonable searches.
“It’s particularly terrible that they did this when so few people know how to properly change their settings or are aware of the sheer magnitude of information that Google collects and stores,” added Greco.
Not just Google
Captain John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department in Minnesota said it wasn’t just Google that could furnish cops with a startling mount of detailed location data. Facebook and Snapchat were two others who’d proven useful, he said.
Sherwin told Forbes his homicide investigators recently served a court order on Snapchat to help it locate an alleged shooter pursuant to court order. Though not a reverse location search, the Rochester police used the Snapchat data and combined that with information from the person’s internet provider to determine the location of the alleged killer’s IP address, Sherwin said. Combined with “general intelligence” from friends and associates, police were able to locate the suspect. “Technology pointed the way,” he said, noting that location data could both exonerate and implicate.
Speaking specifically about Google, Sherwin said the geolocation information the Mountain View giant was able to provide was “incredible.”
“People don’t know what they’re signing up to,” the captain added. “People don’t realize they’re being tracked, not by government but private industry.
“When you sit down and think about it, it makes you want to destroy all your devices ... and move to a cabin in Montana.”