The Google: Geofence Misdirection a Consequence of Good Enough Analytics?

March 18, 2020

What a surprise—the use of Google tracking data by police nearly led to a false arrest, we’re told in the NBC News article, “Google Tracked his Bike Ride Past a Burglarized Home. That Made him a Suspect.” Last January, programmer and recreational cyclist Zachary McCoy received an email from Google informing him, as it does, that the cops had demanded information from his account. He had one week to try to block the release in court, yet McCoy had no idea what prompted the warrant. Writer Jon Schuppe reports:

“There was one clue. In the notice from Google was a case number. McCoy searched for it on the Gainesville Police Department’s website, and found a one-page investigation report on the burglary of an elderly woman’s home 10 months earlier. The crime had occurred less than a mile from the home that McCoy … shared with two others. Now McCoy was even more panicked and confused.”

After hearing of his plight, McCoy’s parents sprang for an attorney:

“The lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, dug around and learned that the notice had been prompted by a ‘geofence warrant,’ a police surveillance tool that casts a virtual dragnet over crime scenes, sweeping up Google location data — drawn from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections — from everyone nearby. The warrants, which have increased dramatically in the past two years, can help police find potential suspects when they have no leads. They also scoop up data from people who have nothing to do with the crime, often without their knowing ? which Google itself has described as ‘a significant incursion on privacy.’ Still confused ? and very worried ? McCoy examined his phone. An avid biker, he used an exercise-tracking app, RunKeeper, to record his rides.”

Aha! There was the source of the “suspicious” data—RunKeeper tapped into his Android phone’s location service and fed that information to Google. The records show that, on the day of the break-in, his exercise route had taken him past the victim’s house three times in an hour. Eventually, the lawyer was able to convince the police his client (still not unmasked by Google) was not the burglar. Perhaps ironically, it was RunKeeper data showing he had been biking past the victim’s house for months, not just proximate to the burglary, that removed suspicion.

Luck, and a good lawyer, were on McCoy’s side, but the larger civil rights issue looms large. Though such tracking data is anonymized until law enforcement finds something “suspicious,” this case illustrates how easy it can be to attract that attention. Do geofence warrants violate our protections against unreasonable searches? See the article for more discussion.

Cynthia Murrell, March 18, 2020


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