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Google data puts innocent man at the scene of a crime – Naked Security


You’ve assuredly heard this before about ubiquitous surveillance, or perhaps even said it yourself: “If you have nothing to hide, and you’ve done nothing wrong, why should you worry?”

Zachary McCoy, of Florida, offers this answer:

If you’re innocent, that doesn’t mean you can’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like going on a bike ride in which your GPS puts you in a position where police suspect you of a crime you didn’t commit.

As NBC News reports, McCoy, an avid cyclist, got an email from Google in January.

It was from Google’s legal investigations support team. They were writing to let the 30-year-old know that local police had demanded information related to his Google account. He had seven days in which to appear in court if he wanted to block the release of that data, Google told him.

He was, understandably, terrified, in spite of being one of those innocent people who should have nothing to hide. NBC News quotes him:

I was hit with a really deep fear.

I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew the police wanted to get something from me. I was afraid I was going to get charged with something, I don’t know what.

How is it that McCoy didn’t know what police were inquiring about? Because his Android phone had been swept up in a surveillance dragnet called a geofence warrant – a type of warrant done in secret.

McCoy’s device had been located near the scene of a burglary that had taken place near the route he takes to bicycle to his job. Investigators had used the geofence warrant to try to suss out the identity of people whose devices are located near the scene of a crime around the time it occurred.

As NBC News reports, police hadn’t discovered his identity. The first stage of data collection doesn’t return identifying information – only data about devices that might be of interest. It’s during the next stage, when police sift through the data looking for suspicious devices, that they turn to Google to ask that it identify users.

Like many of us, McCoy had an Android phone that was linked to his Google account, and he used plenty of apps that store location data: Gmail, YouTube, and an exercise-tracking app called RunKeeper that feeds off of Google location data and which helps users to track their workouts.

You can look up your location history to find out exactly what Google knows about you, by date. On the day of the burglary – 29 March 2019 – Google knew that McCoy had passed the scene of the crime three times within an hour as he looped through his neighborhood during his workout.

It was a “nightmare scenario,” McCoy said:

I was using an app to see how many miles I rode my bike and now it was putting me at the scene of the crime. And I was the lead suspect.

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