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Police are using the Google Maps Timeline to collect location information for cases

Google Maps
Google Maps (Image credit: Android Central)

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

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

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.

18 Comments
  • Would've been nice of AC to have instructions about turning this feature off, but I'll just search the net all the same...
  • Check the last sentence in the article.
  • ^ +1links are a wonderful thing 😆
  • Maybe it wasn't there when the poster read it but because of his comments the author added it. The timeline of the comments show you and the other poster added a comment a day apart. I'm not saying that's what happened but it could have.
  • I try to be ok with all this snooping but Im really not ok with it at all. The other day I asked my google asst for the number of a local restaurant it provided it of course but it also informed me I had visited the establishment 4 months earlier. Thats sorta disturbing somehow.
  • Even if you do the recommendations in the link there's no real way to stop it.
  • True. You can't disable cell tower triangulation. However, Google Location History collects much more detailed information than cell tower triangulation. So if you ever plan to do something nefarious, leave your personal mobile device at home (or wherever your alibi will be).
  • Cell tower triangulation certain is accurate enough to put you in the area. If you are carrying a cell phone, you are being tracked.
  • That's why I have all this ON ALL THE TIME!
    If I'm go missing, maybe I will be found. Plus I have an alibi if there is something brought up against me. Police can easily check where my phone was. It's a good thing.
    Also several people have access to my pin-point location for safety reasons. If you're geocaching in caves and abroad where only very few people will ever be, it's something like life-insurance. And it's awesome for looking back and remembering. The best photo-album ever, because photos taken will be visible in your timeline, too. I will never miss that feature again.
    I deleted it once many years ago because of an "privacy hype", and I really, really regret it.
  • I'm glad I'm not the only one that likes it. I always said if something were to happen to me (God forbid!) my steps could be traced.
  • Well, the location data is valuable to me so I appreciate Timeline. My one 'lament' is that it only 'sees' back into mid-2013, sporadically, and I wish it went back further.
  • I have mixed feelings about this. Clearly, there are pros and cons to this as many of you have pointed out. I like the idea of elderly folks carrying cell phones for this very reason. If they wander and get lost, and they have cellphones with these features turned on, it would be easy to find them. Being tracked does seem a bit creepy, but catching bad guys seems like a good idea, but then there are privacy issues. As @sublimaze pointed out "So if you ever plan to do something nefarious, leave your personal mobile device at home (or wherever your alibi will be)."
  • Hey Annie_8plus ! Good to see you on the AC side and I agree with the points you've highlighted.
  • I am in the transparency camp when it comes to the data collection debate, so I am for location tracking as long as the user is aware. I think it's better to be able to reduce doubt when it comes to crime or lost child/elderly/mentally ill. Personally, I keep mine on all the time. It's interesting to "look back in time" a bit.
  • Personally, I think it should be considered very circumstantial and barely any better than a lie detector test. It's easy to spoof and its easy for it to be wrong. GPS doesn't always update properly. I think maybe it can be used as evidence to obtain a warrant to research a suspect further maybe, but enough to put someone in jail for a week? I'm not buying that. As reliable as it is, it's not 100% reliable and its not beyond reasonable doubt that it gets screwed up sometimes.
  • On the other hand, it could prove you are innocent! A long time ago, before cell phones, my father's car was supposedly spotted at a crime scene and he had to file all sorts of information proving he was actually 200 miles away at the time. It was long enough in the past that he had a tough time recalling exactly what he was doing that day. It isn't always easy to prove a negative.
  • Well it SHOULD Be we are Innocent until PROVEN guilty. And when you provide proof, it SHOULD NOT, be allowed for facts be ignored either. But Unfortunately the US and US Legal system (no longer Justice) has definitely gone way down hill. I know
    For this usage it is truly sad, since we cannot trust Government to use intelligence and realize it is merely circumstantial evidence and NOT PROOF in and of itself. Again Government is RUINING technology through ABUSES (ignorant usage) or OVER regulation. Which especially annoys me on TAX DAY when 44% of households do _NOT_ pay taxes, and so may pay a unfair proportion.
  • No one should be surprised by this story. Criminal investigations are one thing. But your texts, emails, and other electronic data may be subject to subpoena in civil cases such as divorce etc. Technology offers many conveniences. In nearly every case, it's benign. However, if you are in the small percentage of cases that have a negative impact, you're really screwed. Google "low frequency high impact" events for more reading.