Law Enforcement is abusing our location data and it's causing more harm than good

Google Maps Commute Hero
Google Maps Commute Hero (Image credit: Joe Maring / Android Central)

Zachary McCoy enjoys riding his bike. It's a great way to get a little fresh air and exercise, and millions like him do the same. McCoy also, like many other people, uses an app to keep track of his bike rides, and this put him in the crosshairs of Gainsville, Florida police as a suspect in a crime he didn't commit. Welcome to geofence warrants.

McCoy was able to "fix" his issues with the police after spending a few thousand dollars to hire a lawyer, and as luck would have it the same location tracking that pushed him forward as a burglary suspect ended up clearing him.

When you share anything with anyone (or any company), it is no longer private. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be protected.

McCoy used the Runkeeper (opens in new tab) app to track his bike rides. Apps that need to track your location in a timeline use the sensor and location information from your phone to track your every move while they are open, and because of the way location services are centralized, the requests all go through Google.

The police know this and can request anonymous data from Google about every device that's been within a certain distance of a crime. The law says Google must comply with these broad warrants, and raw data is handed over for someone working for or with law enforcement to pore through. If that person sees anything that they think needs further investigation, warrants are served to Google for account data that's not sanitized and anonymous. Google's policy is not to release any data before a customer is informed and has a chance to respond.

Google will not release your account details until you've had time to respond to any warrants.

That's what saved McCoy — he received an email from Google letting him know that local police had requested his account data and that he only had seven days before Google would be forced to release it. Some of his own sleuthing and a case number got the ball rolling, and he was able to determine that a burglary had happened close to his home and at a place where he frequently rode past on his bike.

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

Police were only interested in the location data at and around the time of the crime. Still, McCoy's lawyer was able to show that there was a long history of riding his bike past the crime scene, which shows his proximity to the crime scene wasn't any evidence of wrongdoing; it was just where he rode his bike.

McCoy got lucky, but only after he was forced to spend money to prove he hadn't done anything. That's not how justice is supposed to work, where we are innocent until proven guilty. And at the heart of it all is the geofence warrant. Police simply ask Google (and Facebook, and Apple, and Microsoft) for records of every machine that was in the wrong place at the wrong time, thus casting a vast net to try and scoop up everything.

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Google told NBC news that geofence warrants have increased by over 2,000% since 2017. That's not a typo — two-thousand percent. Law enforcement has figured out a lazy shortcut to police work, and as we see with McCoy's case and others like it, innocent people are at risk because of these warrants.

There is nothing Google can do to stop the practice, and if you like to use any sort of mapping application, there's not much you can do either. Your only option is to periodically delete all location data from your Google account and from any apps that may be using it, but then why use an app to track your progress in the first place if you're just going to delete that progress so you don't become a victim?

The solution is actually easy — stop issuing broad geofence warrants.

The solution is putting a stop to these overly broad and seemingly unconstitutional fishing expeditions. Sometimes, a closer look at an account can help solve a crime. Sometimes, an innocent person is forced to spend money and time to clear their name even though they've done nothing wrong.

More: How to automatically delete Web & App Activity

Google gives you the tools to erase your location history, and it's something you probably should start regularly doing. And if you enjoy using an app like Runkeeper, well, sorry, but you should probably stop using them since we live in what's slowly becoming a police state where you're numbered and tracked from the cradle to the grave.

You can contact your congressional representative here and tell them that geofencing warrants need to stop.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • This article is a little misleading. Police never arrested the person, he chose to spend money to fight the warrant for geolocation data. Because you geolocate to an area of a crime doesn't mean law enforcement will come and arrest you. What would have happened in this case is that an investigator would have talked to him, and he easily explains why he was there. Would have been free. He chose to fight the warrant, and that is why he spent money.
  • Exactly... The article is a lot misleading.
  • You are exactly right and I don't like articles like this when they are misleading and produce the wrong interpretation in the mind of people who don't really know or understand the issue. *To the Author of the article* If a writer, contributor or what ever you want the title to be in reference to publishing articles, your primary purpose in the performance of providing information to the public is to have the COMPLETE information and relay it with accuracy and not to provide limited information in order to provoke a misunderstood belief or response from readers because you failed to do due diligence in providing the readers with the Complete and accurate information to allow them to decide how they want to perceive or understand it.
  • Yea I was wondering the same thing. Why would he hire a lawyer if he didn't even need one yet. Sounds like he could have easily explained that away to an investigation officer. Would there have been some inconveniences to him such as time wasted or some money lost to missing work... Sure. But certainly does not makes sense to spend "thousands" until necessary. Of course this summary probably doesn't explain everything either.
  • Wrong attitude. The police are not there to be your friend. He was not a witness, he was a possible suspect.
    Remember the Miranda warning, can and will be used against you.
    Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. If you are a suspect, shut up, lawyer up, and stay shut up. It can never work on your favor.
  • Click Bait, which misleads readers and causes concerns to uneducated readers. Don't people realize that misinformation actually causes harm and animosity for no reason?
  • I appreciate this article as I hear a voice of concern over the ability of law enforcement to quite easily collect data contributing to a surveillance state under the guise of protecting the public. This innocent person should not have been placed in a position like this. Stress and anxiety and loss of $ for nothing. I appreciate the article for suggesting that there are some ways to help draw awareness to the inherent risks with putting everything out there. A 2000% increase in requests sounds like a slippery slope and not a far stretch to see how we got to the mass bulk collection that Snowden helped uncover. Why not just forget warrants and secret courts and just send a copy of your data to law enforcement to make crime busting easier? No thanks. I have worked in an industry where I have seen how small errors have led to false persecution and injustice that can't be reversed as once the information is out there you can't get it back. Once labeled as a person of interest it is not struck from the record and can do immense harm as there is often no recourse because info is "confidential" or better yet "top secret". Even innocent witnesses that have come forward to help with investigations have had their names attached to law enforcement files and as such their names show up in criminal record searches. The impact can be and has been career ending. Facial recognition is another example of this slippery slope and how close we are to a true surveillance state. I love these types of articles so keep up the good work!
  • It is investigative avenues/leads that are being sought, not directly naming/pointing to a person(s). Data that is not specific to your personal information/bios is available by submitting a subpoena/warrant to release that info. I think if your home/business was burglarized and money/valuables/firearm(s) etc were taken, you would want law enforcement to use due dilligence in locating/identifying a suspect(s) that would lead to an arrest/recovering what was taken from you, you would appreciate it. This is nothing new and the author's failure to provide information about it especially when it assists law enforcement in locating suspect(s) of crimes (reason of why the increase in data requests) it does a disservice to the process of law enforcement and our society. In this case of the story, the person just happen to be in the area at the approximate time of the incident. It's a lead that an investigator(s) would follow up on and then clear the person if needed. I think that is something everyone can appreciate and not blow out of proportion because of a misleading story due to failure to provide all information or from personal negative view of the legal process.
  • I don't understand your point. The persons personal information was eventually released (in the process of trying to defend themselves) and if they had not acted on the notice from Google it would have also been released by Google with likely more information than required (as is often the case based on professional experience) I live in a large city and so these types of sweeping requests are likely not effective and likely contribute to further error rates, wasting resources and needless disclosure of personal information without consent and again putting other people at risk under the false pretense of security and creating secondary uses of the information beyond what was initially required. Especially true for vulnerable populations. You can have privacy and security. Law enforcement can do their job better with less but more meaningful data, particularly in large urban environments. My two cents rooted unfortunately in that i have seen more potential harm being created by poor policies than "crimes" being solved.
  • I'm very disappointed to see Android Central resort to click bait and political nonsense. Stick to phones and tech. The author is in way over his head understanding the law or is intentionally misleading the readers. The person in the article was in no way even suspected of a crime. He had an association to the location of a crime and the police were just beginning their due diligence in investigating. Google telling the cops he was there is in no way any different than a nosey neighbor saying they saw him there.
  • Exactly right. People distort the truth because they either fail to provide all the information or purposely do it in order to get a negative/desired response from the reader. The author of the article needs to due research and proper reporting before publishing a story.
  • Jerry... Stick to reporting about phones and stop politicizing. I want to know about technology regarding Android phones, not your political agenda. Thank you.
  • Arrest Jerry this site became a huge advertisement
  • I need to stop reading comments.
  • Good article maybe add 'opinion" to the title. As it can be misleading. Overall in this situation maybe this gentleman didn't have to preemptively go to the police/get a lawyer. But at the same time knowing people that may have had a run in with the law in the past. That record plus info putting them there can easily get them roped in as a prime suspect. In some cases enough to land you in jail with a need to get a lawyer to help you out and if you can't afford it who knows what happens next. But that is a different situation and at this moment only hypothetical.
  • Wow alot of y'all sure do like LE.
  • So you don't like LE? You don't want crimes solved? Following leads to identify suspects is something LE does. Our tools change quickly, should law enforcement not keep up with tools to do the job effectively? The proper processes were used to identify possible suspect devices here and no one was falsely accused. It's likely this guy would have been quickly cleared by follow up investigation and that based on the type of warrant his identity wasn't even known to LE at the point he enlisted his attorney. The warrant data identifies devices in the area at the time of the crime, to get more info, ie subscriber identity, would require additional warrants that would have to meet the same probable cause standard.