How Police Mine Google for Your Location and Search History

In January 2020, an alarming email from Google landed in McCoy’s inbox. Police were requesting his user data, the company told him, and McCoy had seven days to go to court and block its release.

McCoy later found out the request was part of an investigation into the burglary of a nearby home the year before. The evidence that cast him as a suspect was his location during his bike ride – information the police obtained from Google through what is called a geofence warrant. For simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, McCoy was being investigated and, as a result, his Google data was at risk of being handed over to the police.

Geofence location warrants and reverse search warrants such as the ones McCoy dealt with are increasingly becoming the tool of choice for law enforcement. Google revealed for the first time in August that it received 11,554 geofence location warrants from law enforcement agencies in 2020, up from 8,396 in 2019 and 982 in 2018.

It’s a concerning trend, argue experts and advocates. They worry the increase signals the start of a new era, one in which law enforcement agencies find ever more creative ways to obtain user information from data-rich tech companies. And they fear agencies and jurisdictions will use this relatively unchecked mechanism in the context of new and controversial laws such as the criminalization of nearly all abortions in Texas.

“As long as the data exists, all it takes is a creative law enforcement officer to say, ‘Hey, we can get a warrant or we can send a subpoena for this particular subset of the data that’s already being harvested’,” said Caleb Kenyon, the defense attorney who represented McCoy, to the Guardian. “They’re coming up with everything they can to do their job. That’s all it takes for the next type of [reverse] search warrant to come about.”

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Source: the Guardian