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Google's location tracking made this innocent biker a suspect in a robbery

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

What you need to know

  • Zachary McCoy became a robbery suspect by riding his bike past a house three times that had been burgled.
  • Police used a geofence warrant to request information about devices in the area from Google.
  • Geofence warrants have increased by 500% from 2018 to 2019.

Did you ever think your next bike ride might turn you into a suspect for a crime? I know I haven't, and neither did Zachary McCoy, until he was contacted by Google's legal investigations team last January. In an email from Google, he learned the Gainesville police were requesting information from his Google account.

The email stated he had seven days to block the release of the information by going to court, or it would hand over his data to the police. In a panic, McCoy searched the included case number from the email and discovered it was linked to a home robbery, which occurred 10 months earlier. He then went to his parent's home, where they agreed to use some of their savings to hire a lawyer.

After some digging, the lawyer discovered the police had issued a geofence warrant, which requires Google to release data it collected from any devices within a designated area.

Zachary McCoy Google Location Robbery Suspect

Source: NBC News (Image credit: Source: NBC News)

As it turns out, McCoy tracks his bike rides with the RunKeeper app and had unknowingly given his location data to Google. Unfortunately for him, he happened to ride by a house three times that had been burgled as part of his usual biking route. That was all it took to make him a suspect.

I was using an app to see how many miles I rode my bike and now it was putting me at the scene of the crime. And I was the lead suspect.

Fortunately, McCoy was eventually cleared as a suspect, but it was still a frightening situation to be placed in simply because you went for a bike ride.

In recent years, the demand for geofence warrants such as this have skyrocketed. NBC News reports a 1500% rise between 2017 and 2018, while it increased another 500% from 2018 to 2019. The surge of requests brings even more attention to the dangers of keeping your phone on you and allowing it to record your location at all times.

With the launch of Android 10, Google made it easier to prevent apps from tracking you in the background. However, that doesn't stop Google from doing it. At least the company began allowing for users to set up automatic deletion of your location data starting last year.

How to automatically delete your Google Location and Web & App Activity

8 Comments
  • Easiest way to get away with a crime, just don't take your phone. "I was at home all night officer, and I can prove it with my location data".
  • Remember that in the USA you are innocent until proven guilty.
    The biker was in the wrong place at wrong time. Just because he happened to pass buy the crime scene doesn't mean he committed the crime.
  • You're innocent until proven guilty in principle, in practice that doesn't necessarily seem to be how things always work.
  • What I don't understand is how the same data wouldn't also prove that he didn't do it? If it placed him in front of the house at the time, wouldn't the next update show him away from the house as he had done predictably on prior rounds with his bike? I feel like they may have worried a little too much, or they haven't truly shared the entire story. His biking app would have tracked his ride and showed that he didn't stop. You can't use the data to make him guilty if the same data shows that he never stopped. Now if he just happened to have stopped his bike on that ride for 5 minutes in front of the house, that becomes a very different story. Funny how your phone being near somewhere indicates that you were possibly involved in a crime, but your phone being at home doesn't prove that you weren't there. I can't tell you how many times I look at my phone at home and google tells me it will take me 15 minutes to get home. So many times it places me across the river behind our house. I have no clue as to why it does this, but false location data could certainly get you in trouble if your spouse tracks your phone's location and it keeps popping over to some location a few miles away.
  • That's a burglary not a robbery.
  • This article says his being included in the geofence data made him a suspect. It more likely made him a person of interest or potential witness. The authorities may have liked to speak to anyone in the area at the time. Maybe he could have seen something, and unusual vehicle in the area, etc. When investigating a crime, the police tend to talk to a lot of people, not just suspects. They have to know who to talk to though. The Geofence warrent finds out who was in the area. The notice provided by Google lets you know you were so flagged. Does seem a bit odd that it took the police 10 months to request this.
  • No they thought they found the suspect here is a better article...if his parents did not give the young man money for a good lawyer he would have been in jail for a long time until he could have proven his innocence... https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/google-tracked-his-bike-ride-past-b...
  • Can this actually be disabled?