Users who are on Android have already been listed on Google Maps Timeline. It is tied to the location history setting that has caused a lot of confusion because of its name and it checks in periodically on every smartphone tied to users account once they have opted in. For some people, this might prove to be helpful to calculate mileage for others it serves good to know where they have been. For law enforcement, it has become a way to cast a wide net in the process of figuring out just who might have been around during a crime scene according to a report by the New York Times.
It is not a foolproof way to apprehend miscreants and a lot of the details on how the service can be used to retrieve information sounds cryptic. Nevertheless, a recent case in Phoenix shows some insight into how the service is being used or abused, depending on the point of view.
Like every U.S company, Google has to provide any information that is accompanied by a lawful subpoena. The company has a strong history of fighting subpoenas like these, however, in the end, a lot of data gets handed over on request. Google uses its database of ‘where have you been’, internally known as Sensorvault, to show location-based interest ads.
Now, law enforcement can have Google tell them who was in the area during a crime scene. Google anonymizes the data by providing a set of tokens that portray an account which is trackable by the Police. The police can then ask for more precise and identifying data that fit the scope of an investigation based on other evidence, such as video or eye-witnesses. Times profiled a case and showed how this can backfire–a man who lent his car to a person who committed a crime and was unfortunately found in the vicinity of the crime scene 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,” reported the New York Times.
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