Police are using Google's Timeline feature to collect location information


Another location feature that police are using to track
individuals.

If you’re one of the millions of people with a Google account,
you have a Google Maps Timeline. It might be blank — it’s tied to
the Location History setting that caused more confusion than needed
because of its name, and it checks in periodically on every mobile
device tied to your account once you’ve agreed and opted in. For
some people, this is helpful for things like calculating mileage,
for others, it may be a cool thing to see where you’ve been. For
law enforcement, though, it’s become a way to cast a very wide net
when looking to see just who might have been around during a crime
according to an eye-opening piece by the
New York Times
.

It’s not a foolproof way to catch the bad guys and a lot of the
details about how officials can use the information is a bit
cryptic. But a recent case in Phoenix sheds a little light on how
the service is being used, or abused, depending on your point of
view.


Google, like every company in the U.S., has to provide any
information that is accompanied by a lawful subpoena. The company
has a fairly good history of fighting these subpoenas, but in the
end, a lot of data gets handed over when requested. Google’s
database of where you’ve been, internally known as Sensorvault,
helps the company show you location based interests and ads. A new
breed of warrant, which the NYT aptly calls geofence warrants, taps
into the Sensovault database in a way that would make the framers
of the fourth amendment shiver.

Law enforcement can take the location and time of a crime and
have Google tell them who was in the area. Google has a novel way
to attempt to anonymize the data — the company provides a set of
tokens that portray an account that police can track and then ask
for more precise and identifying data for the ones that fit the
scope of an investigation based on other evidence, such as video or
eye-witnesses. The case profiled by the Times shows how this can
backfire — a man who lent his car to a person who committed a
crime and was unlucky enough to be in the vicinity when it was
committed was arrested and spent a week in jail as a suspect in a
murder case.

Investigators also had other circumstantial evidence, including
security video of someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic,
the same model that Mr. Molina owned, though they could not see the
license plate or attacker.

But after he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against Mr.
Molina fell apart as investigators learned new information and
released him. Last month, the police arrested another man: his
mother’s ex-boyfriend, who had sometimes used Mr. Molina’s car.

We’re not against law enforcement using every tool at their
disposal to try and catch a criminal. We’re also not against anyone
who wants to use a service that keeps a timeline of all the places
they have been for whatever reason. We do think it’s important that
everyone knows how the data collected about us all is used.

More: How to opt out (and erase existing data) of Google’s
Location History and Timeline features

Source: FS – Android
Police are using Google's Timeline feature to collect location information