by Anthony W. Accurso
A recent report by Julia Love and Davey Allen, writing for Bloomberg, highlights how the default for what passes for police investigative work is simply requesting data from Google for even the pettiest crimes.
Criminal Legal News has reported on the vast amount of data that Google stores about its users, including where they have traveled (with frightening precision) and what search terms they’ve used.
Police know that Google has this information, and they use the third-party loophole to the Fourth Amendment to request data from Google they think will be useful in an investigation. Previously, police needed to identify a suspect in order to get historical location information from a cell phone service provider to determine if the suspect was nearby when a crime was committed. However, with a geofence warrant, police can simply have Google turn over data on everyone who was nearby when the crime occurred, effectively allowing the police to work backwards in identifying a suspect, while simultaneously violating the privacy of every other person who just happened to be near the scene at the time.
If this weren’t invasive enough, police will also demand that Google turn over identifying information (such as IP addresses or user profile data) on anyone who searched for keywords police think might be associated with a crime. Arson investigators frequently do this, on the assumption that arsonists can’t resist reviewing media coverage of their handiwork, requesting from Google information on people who google the address where the fire occurred or possibly the name of the business.
The Bloomberg report mentions a case where both geofencing and keyword searches were requested as part of an investigation. A rookie police officer in Raleigh, North Carolina, had his SUV stolen one morning in January 2020 when he left it unattended. Though the vehicle was located by lunch time, the officer’s radio was still missing.
The Raleigh PD were able to remotely disable the radio, so the thief could not disrupt or eavesdrop on sensitive communications. But they also sent a request to Google for anyone in the area when the SUV was stolen along with information on anyone who googled “Motorola APX 6000” and similar phrases in the days after the device went missing.
The Bloomberg report analyzed 115 such warrants sent to Google between 2020 and 2023, originating from courts in Austin, Denver, Phoenix, Raleigh, and San Francisco. It noted that roughly “1 in 5 location warrants were for offenses such as theft and vandalism,” such as when an officer in “Scottsdale, Arizona, got one in search of somebody accused of stealing a Louis Vuitton handbag.”
The report further notes that, although Google reports that it “provides at least some information in about 80% of cases,” the data often “offered nothing useful.” Nevertheless, police submitted a record 60,472 such requests to Google in 2022, about double the number from 2019.
TechDirt’s Tim Cushing speculated on the various failures that have produced this exponential rise in the number of requests in the last few years, from magistrates who approved the warrants without understanding the underlying technology or its intersection with the Fourth Amendment to a Congress and Supreme Court who have failed to define reasonable limits on such searches—or condemn them as putting the constitutional cart before the horse.
But Cushing ultimately focuses on police, writing that “cops have decided to do all their ‘investigating’ from their desks, moving nothing more than a mouse-finger” and filing reports to have someone else do the hard work of collecting evidence (Google) instead of conducting in person investigations.
“We’re not seeing massive year-over-year gains in crime clearance rates,” wrote Cushing. “But we’re definitely seeing exponential growth in these warrants, which ask magistrate judges to do nothing else but decide whether or not it’s likely Google has (at least some) of the data on hand.”
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