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Google tracking becoming police’s main witness

2019-04-23
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The New York Times has revealed police are using Google collected smartphone location history to help catch criminals and find witnesses. Law enforcement requests for information from Google's mobile location history database on the up and up with as much as 180 requests per week.

Google has been recording people’s locations worldwide for 10 years so let's face it, it was only a matter of time before the authorities started  getting their hands all over that treasure trove. The US boys in blue are using it to find suspects and witnesses near crimes, running the risk of snaring the innocent. The excellent NY Time piece points out that innocent people have been arrested and faced detrimental knock on effects.

The US police force put the data collected from Google in their ‘Sensorvault’ and their demands on the tech giant are particularly broad and may scoop up data from hundreds of phones. They can get warrants that ask Google to give over location info for every device that passed through a certain area over a certain time. Google anonymizes the data at first, but it will give names and other sensitive info if police prod further.

The info gathered from location history isn’t exactly full proof. It confirms that a phone using someone's Google account was in the area, not that the person was. iPhone owners are not quite as affected. Only some use Google Maps so are less likely to have it running. While the location data could help cops solve tough-to-crack cases, it could also pin the blame on the wrong people.

Location history has been available since 2009 and Google keeps the data it gathers from it for an indefinite period because, well it’s Google and your business is its business. Now the concern is police will become overly dependent on it on a global scale even though limited searches and probable cause are supposedly protected.

The dangers are plentiful with this type of mass surveillance by a company out to exploit data for profit by any means possible. The New York Time talked to former Google employees who overwhelmingly state the Sensorvault database was not designed for the needs of law enforcement. This raises questions about its accuracy in catching criminals, but it’s still better than current police surveillance according to one detective interviewed. 

The real crux of the story is that Google has and stores this data in the first place. Why on Earth should a tech company have it and not law enforcement who are trying to catch the bad guys? See the conundrum? So, the main question should really be, why is Google even allowed to collect and keep that information? It is not democratic in the first place, but the cat is out of the bag now so it’s never going to go back in.

How to stop location history

On your Android phone or device, head to the buried Settings > Google > Google Account > Data & personalization > Activity Controls > Location History > Manage Settings screen. There, you cannot turn off location history completely but you can pause it.  Already collected data will still be saved in your Google account and you can resume collection whenever you like.

To delete your data, you’ll have to head to the Timeline page—you can click the “Manage Activity” link on the Activity History page to open it. Google’s been collecting stuff for a decade so the sheer extent of the data gathered might scare the bejesus out of you. You can chose to delete the lot in this window. Just click the gear at the bottom right corner of the page and select “Delete all Location History.”

You’ll need to repeat this step if you have multiple Google accounts and you want to disable location history for all of them.