Civil rights vs. public safety: Police are using Google to acquire detailed records of your private activity

Thursday, April 12, 2018 by

The debate over privacy versus security is one that dates back hundreds of years, really to the inception to the United States itself. Ben Franklin, for example, once famously declared that, those who would give up their liberty for some security deserve neither liberty nor security. Others strongly disagree, arguing that surrendering some liberty is necessary so that the government can ensure safety and security for all. This debate is arguably more vigorous today than it ever has been, considering the emergence of the Internet and advancements in technology.

Many people are likely unaware of this, but police commonly use Google to gather information on and ultimately track down criminal behavior. According to Google’s own Transparency Report Help Center, “A variety of laws allow government agencies to investigate regulatory violations or criminal activity. Google receives requests for user data from government agencies investigating criminal activity, administrative agencies, courts and others.”

Google explains further that law enforcement “can submit data requests to Google, Inc. in person, via fax, regular mail, email or through Google’s online Law Enforcement Request System (LERS).”

As far as the types of data that Google discloses to government agencies, Google states that information is typically requested from four services: Gmail, YouTube, Google Voice and Blogger, each of which provides law enforcement with unique data. With a court order to examine an individual’s Gmail address, for instance, law enforcement may obtain non-content email header information, while a search warrant to examine an individual’s YouTube account may grant law enforcement access to copies of private videos or private message content.

In the past, law enforcement has used information from Google to help them track down criminals and bring them to justice. Just last month, reported on two seemingly unrelated cases that occurred back in 2015 and 2016 in which law enforcement was able to convince a judge to order Google to hand over account identifiers on every single cellphone that was in the area of the crime scenes during certain times on the days that the crimes took place.

“In at least four investigations last year… Raleigh police used search warrants to demand Google accounts not of specific suspects but from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime,” WRAL News reported, adding, “These warrants often prevent the technology giant for months from disclosing information about the searches not just to potential suspects, but to any users swept up in the search.” (Related: Google is recording everything that you search and say).

It’s very easy to look at this and come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with a system that helps law enforcement track down criminals and bring them to justice using information from the Internet. There is, however, some legitimate concern over privacy rights being violated, not for criminals but for average, everyday American citizens. WRAL News made it clear that at least four investigations this year that have been conducted by Raleigh police have examined the personal information from any mobile device that was close to the crime scene. This means that hundreds of American citizens – even those who did nothing wrong – had their data disclosed by Google and their constitutional privacy rights violated. (Related: Google’s latest assault on your privacy comes in the form of a tiny “smart” camera designed to autonomously monitor and document your every move.)

As a country that deeply values both liberty and security, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and Google should look for better and more efficient ways to both use technology to track down criminals while simultaneously respecting the constitutional rights of the American people. There needs to be a balance, as choosing one over the other can be disastrous.

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