News Brief

Google’s sharing of personal data with law enforcement prompts concerns

Law enforcement officials in the United States seem to have readily obtained information from a Google owned database which stores the location records of hundreds of millions of devices, according to a new investigation.

The New York Times reports that police officials have, for years, sent Google warrants seeking location data on user accounts in an attempt to identify their proximity to a specific area during the time of a crime. In response to those requests, Google searches a database called Sensorvault for devices that were active near the scene of a crime being investigated, and provides the information to the police.

According to the report, the data Google initially supplies is first labelled with anonymous ID numbers. Once police narrow their inquiries to a few devices, Google releases information such as names and email addresses.

According to a report published in CNet, police warrants to Google have increased in the last six months and the company has received as many as 180 requests in one week.

Sensorvault stores information culled from a Google service called Location History which debuted in 2009 and can be found in both Android and Apple devices. Location History is activated when users set up services like traffic alerts in Google Maps, or tag their images according to locations using Google Photo.

Google’s readiness to hand over personal information requested by police forces risks innocent civilians who could find themselves wrongly targeted by law enforcement. The Times also interviewed a man who was arrested last year during the course of a murder investigation. Police zeroed in on Jorge Molina after his data was reportedly shared with detectives in Phoenix, Arizona. Molina was released from jail after a week, when authorities arrested another suspect.

The revelations also highlight growing concerns over the impact of mass data collection and data leaks, as witnessed by recent scandals which have engulfed technology companies like Facebook.