Law enforcement agencies around the country are increasingly going after search warrants to obtain information from Google, based on the location data of phones near crimes, The New York Times reported.
The news report detailed the case of Jorge Molina, a man whose data was tracked near the place where a murder took place nine months prior. Police obtained a search warrant that obligated Google to provide information on all devices near the killing.
Police also had a video of someone shooting from a white Honda Civic, the same type of car that Molina owned, although there was no way to see the driver or license plate number.
Molina was arrested and spent a week in jail before he was let go because he provided an alibi and other corroborating evidence that he could not have committed the crime.
Police eventually arrested Molina’s mother’s ex-boyfriend, who would sometimes use Molina’s car. Molina sometimes used other people’s phones to sign into his Google account, as well. The consequences Molina had to face, despite his innocence, were severe. He lost his job over the arrest, and then his car.
The warrants draw on a massive Google database called Sensorvault, and lawmakers and regulators are coming under increased scrutiny over the practice.
Google employees interviewed by the news outlet say the practice has increased steadily over the past six months, and that police increasingly look to the technique when a case goes cold. Officials in law enforcement who use the technique say it’s just a tool, and that suspects are still fully investigated.
“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty,” said Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State who has worked on several cases involving these warrants. “We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”
It’s not clear how many of these requests have led to arrests because many of the cases are still open or sealed by judges. Google says the practice started in 2016 and has spread all over the country. A Google employee said it receives 180 such queries a week, although the company declined to comment officially.