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Police are casting a wide net into the deep pool of Google user location data to solve crimes

Raleigh, N.C., detectives have obtained warrants to search a wide variety of Google account data, and not necessarily only of suspects —a practice that has raised the ire of privacy advocates.




According to reporting by local news station WRAL, police in Raleigh have been using an innovative strategy. While investigating various crimes, the police received a warrant for Google account identifiers on every cell phone that was in the vicinity of the crime scene during certain times, well before and well after the suspected time of the crime.

The public records obtained by WRAL show that the Raleigh Police Department has used this technique in at least four cases in the last year, with at least 19 search warrants for Google data since 2015. However, the casting of a wider net, to seek every account in the vicinity, is a new tactic as of two homicide cases last year, as well as an arson investigation involving a major downtown fire and a sexual battery investigation.

Only one of the four cases that sought Google geofencing data has resulted in an arrest, although the data that the police requested wasn't received until months after the fact.

It's unclear why the police sought accounts from Google. Wireless carriers have the same data, and has been something that law enforcement has been known to subpoena —or be outright given without a court order —for quite some time.

The ACLU, and other privacy advocates, have expressed concern about the practice, raising many of the issues about government and privacy that have been at the forefront since the original Edward Snowden disclosures, which dealt with the role of Apple and other technology companies in data-gathering by the government.