How? From Google, the repository of our curiosities, whereabouts and secrets.
A recent court ruling in Colorado highlighted how Google’s tracking of our locations and web searches helps police find suspects when they have few leads — but it’s also sweeping innocent people into investigations.
Google says it has procedures to “protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement.”
But defense attorneys and civil liberties advocates say that Google is a gold mine for novel police methods that they call unconstitutional fishing expeditions. The advocates say Google must collect and save less of our data to avoid its potential misuse.
Let’s dig into how Google’s information is used in police investigations. The One Tiny Win section below also has tips if you want to minimize Google’s data about you.
Even if you believe you have nothing to hide from law enforcement, relentless digital tracking of Americans risks our information falling into criminals’ hands, too.
In 2020, Denver police officials with a warrant demanded that Google hand over information on anyone who had looked up the home address where a suspected arson killed five people.
Prosecutors said people’s Google search histories were essential leads to help identify suspects they charged with murder. One person searched the address 14 times in the days before the arson, prosecutors said.
But police also obtained Google search histories from several people who weren’t connected to the crime but also looked up that address or similar ones.
A majority of judges on Colorado’s top court recently ruled that the Denver arson warrant was legal given the particular circumstances.
The Colorado court and others haven’t ruled whether that type of broad warrant for anyone’s web searches complies with constitutional protections for free speech and against unreasonable government searches.
No one knows how often these search-term warrants are used, but legal experts say they’re probably unusual.
More common is a similar type of warrant for Google’s records on anyone the company believes was near a crime.
In one case in Florida a few years ago, a man said he rode his bicycle near the location of a home burglary. The police investigated him after they obtained data on all devices that Google recorded near the home around the time of the burglary.
In a statement, Google said that the broad search term and location warrants “pose particular privacy risks.”
Google said that in roughly the past 18 months, the company has successfully objected to more than 2,000 large-scale location warrants as unconstitutional.
The pro and cons of large-scale warrants for Google data
Law enforcement officials say that Google’s data on people’s locations and search histories helps solve crimes, including in the 2021 Capitol riot, and that innocent people are protected.
In initial court-ordered warrants to Google, the company typically gives police information that isn’t connected to people’s identity. Only after they single out potentially suspicious data do the police go back for individually identifiable information.
But defense lawyers and privacy advocates say the two types of broad warrants to Google turn normal police work upside down and threaten Americans’ rights.
In a typical search warrant, police have a suspect in mind and ask for a judge’s approval to search their home, phone data and other potential evidence. Legal experts are generally fine with those targeted warrants to Google.
In the large-scale search term and location warrants, police know a crime occurred but don’t know who might have committed it.
They come up with what could be potential evidence — the location near a crime or a search term like “pipe bomb” — and ask a judge to order Google to provide information on people who match those criteria.
“That’s not the way criminal investigations are supposed to go,” said Jumana Musa, director of the Fourth Amendment Center of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The Google warrants show that companies with our data are arbiters of our constitutional rights.
No one gave Google, Apple or your mobile phone provider that power, but they regularly decide whether government authorities are entitled to your personal information.
Privacy advocates say that anywhere our data is collected and saved en masse, there’s potential for abuse. That’s one reason privacy advocates demand that Google track less information that could be used by police — or misused by crooks.
They point to Google’s competitors including Apple, which collects location information from iPhones but doesn’t save it in a way that could be mass searched under court order, said Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
Web search company DuckDuckGo says it doesn’t save search records in a way that could be tied to a particular person.
Cahn and several other technology privacy advocates said the two types of broad warrants for our Google information should be illegal.
New York and other states are considering banning elements of the warrants.
In the “Activity controls” settings of a personal Google account, you can turn on or off the option for Google to save records of everywhere you go with your phone or other mobile device.
If what Google calls your Location History is turned on, the company may record where your phone travels every couple of minutes, whether you’re using Google apps at the time or not.
Google uses your Location History for some of its features, such as the ability to see how busy a restaurant is in its Google Maps listing. The information also goes into a database that is subject to law enforcement warrants.
You can also delete all or parts of your Location History data.
To minimize Google’s data on what you search, go to the Activity controls and click “turn off” in the Web & App Activity section. It helps to use Chrome and Google web search without logging into a Google account.
You can also search the web instead with the DuckDuckGo search engine or use a virtual private network to make it harder for Google or your internet provider to tie your web activity to your device or identity.
(One problem, however, is the VPN provider — some of which are shady — will collect all your web activity.)
These steps aren’t foolproof, and you as an individual can only do much.
Cahn said even if you don’t use an Android phone or Google search, maps and Chrome, the company’s technology is so ubiquitous that Google probably collects some information on most people.
And no matter how tech savvy you are or how many settings you change, you will never have full knowledge of what companies including Google do with your digital information.
That shouldn’t make you feel powerless. But it helps to understand that Americans have few protections from ubiquitous surveillance of our activities online and where we go.
“This system, the way we’re doing it, is broken and wrong,” said Jennifer Granick, a privacy and technology attorney with the ACLU. “The law should really protect people.”