Google Location History is an investigator’s dream, and law enforcement is definitely taking notice. Federal and regional authorities around the United States have been tapping into Google’s location database since 2016, using “geofence” warrants to request information on every device that entered a specific location at a certain time. The data points are anonymized — at least until authorities have enough of a case to compel Google to share the personal information of likely culprits.
It’s not a perfect system. Geofence warrants have already led to wrongful arrests; after all, Google is tracking a device, not an actual person. If someone takes your phone on a bank heist and law enforcement throws down a geofence warrant, your data is heading into the war room.
Police and federal investigators are using geofence warrants with increasing regularity. In April, The New York Times reported Google received as many as 180 requests from law enforcement a week. And, if you’re interacting with modern society and technology, it’s tricky to avoid Google’s dragnet.
“We feel so privileged to be developing products for billions of users, and with that scale comes a deep sense of responsibility to create things that improve people’s lives,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said during his opening monologue at the I/O conference in April.
Billions of people are tapped into the Google ecosystem, many of them relying on these services daily, or even hourly. While Google’s stated mission puts humanity first, its nature as a public entity means executives can’t value philanthropy over profit. And, of course, Google makes a lot of money through data-driven ad sales. Advertising alone brought in $30.7 billion for Google in the first quarter of 2019 (the company’s overall revenue for the period was $36.3 billion).
More than $10 billion a month is plenty of incentive for Google to collect as much data from its users as possible, consequences be damned. It’s the likely reason Google has locked its data-consent policies behind multi-step processes, or forced its apps onto Android phones, or engaged in abusive advertising practices, or offered ads targeted by hate speech. Futureproofing its data-collection abilities could explain why Google hid a microphone in the Nest Secure. All of these incidents were in service of, or a result of, Google’s vast internal datasets.
Google rolled out Location History in 2009, and since then, the company has been gathering information on Android and iPhone users alike, even when they’ve opted out of tracking. A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press revealed Google apps were storing a user’s time-stamped location data, even when that person turned off Location History. Google admitted to this practice, telling The Verge, “We make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience.”
At this year’s I/O, Google emphasized its commitment to privacy. The company has rolled out a handful of new security features, including the ability to auto-delete activity data and Location History on a rolling basis. It’s unclear how this feature addresses location tracking in the background of Google apps.
In Engadget’s coverage of geofence warrants, associate editor Jon Fingas made the following observation: “Location History’s existence isn’t a secret. It’s been available since 2009, and you have to grant permission before Google starts collecting data. However, people don’t necessarily realize that Google keeps the info for an indefinite period, or that the history is detailed enough to provide a picture of street-by-street movements to investigators.”
In the name of data-driven profit, that’s exactly how Google wants it.
It’s been 10 years since Google flipped the switch on Location History, and this sea of information has carved our current reality, where a podcast journalist can log into a Google account and trace the explicit movements of a stranger accused of murder in California, all from the comfort of his own cell phone. This is just a taste of the influence and insight that Google has over the lives of billions of people; it’s exhilarating and terrifying.
It also makes for a good podcast.
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Jessica has a BA in journalism and she’s written for online outlets since 2008, with four years as senior reporter at Joystiq. She specializes in covering video games, and she strives to tell human stories within the broader tech industry. Jessica is also a sci-fi novelist with a completed manuscript floating through the mysterious ether of potential publishers.