Unless we committed the crime ourselves, it's probably fair to say that when one occurs, we hope the police are able to get to the bottom of what happened. Part of the process involves collecting evidence, talking to witnesses and, possibly, interrogating suspects.
At least that's how we think it works based on many years of watching procedural cop dramas, though none of the 74 different versions of "Law & Order" could have likely prepared for the newest tool in crime fighting. That's not to say we shouldn't have seen it coming.
It would not be possible without advancements in technology, but what the Raleigh Police Department has done raises plenty of questions. After all, should the police be able to access your cellphone even if you are not a suspect?
This time, it's Google
While Facebook has been in the news quite a bit over privacy concerns, in this case, it is Google that has been handing over information. Now, before you think the tech company is being reckless with your data, note that they have done so because a judge has ordered it.
But it's not really that simple.
In multiple cases, police have gone to a judge and requested that a judge compel Google to fork over account identifiers on every single cellphone that crossed into a certain area, where a crime was committed, at a certain time. Even if you had nothing to do with what happened, the police will now have a record of you being there.
Often times because of the court order, Google is not allowed to inform people that their data has been turned over.
Two sides of the argument
On one hand, we all want police to catch the bad guys and if technology can help them do so, that's a good thing. But on the other hand, it is certainly fair to question whether or not it is OK for police to essentially track people who have not so much as been suspected of a crime.
Maybe -- hopefully -- it helps police do their job, but at the same time there is a great likelihood that the tactic will lead to innocent people getting caught up in something they have no control over.
Police say it is important to note that they are not getting phone calls, text messages or emails from Google, but instead just account numbers with no additional content. It requires a different process and warrants to receive the more detailed information.
That's all well and good, but the mere fact that Google is even collecting all that information and there is a possibility it could be turned over to the police is at least a little unsettling. If not the police, who or what is it all for?
Google has a policy
For their part, Google maintains that when it comes to the data they have collected, they are actually doing people a favor by requiring search warrants before handing anything over to police. Records show not every request for data has been granted, though more are being made every year.
According to Google's policy, "When we receive such a request, our team reviews the request to make sure it satisfies legal requirements and Google's policies. Generally speaking, for us to produce any data, the request must be made in writing, signed by an authorized official of the requesting agency and issued under an appropriate law. If we believe a request is overly broad, we'll seek to narrow it."
From January to June 2017, the most recent timeframe Google has posted, the data from just more than 33,700 accounts was part of 9,320 subpoenas, 5,201 search warrants and 1,533 court orders. Of those, 78 percent of the subpoenas resulted in some data being shared, while 85 percent of search warrants and 81 percent of other court orders led to data being produced.
What can be done about it?
The issue is not just related to Android devices, as any phone with a Google app is susceptible. Smartphones all have the option to turn GPS services off, though if you use any kind of map or geo-location-based app, that probably won't work for you.
Even if you were to turn GPS off, however, as long as the phone is on a cell network or connected to Wi-Fi, it can be tracked to some degree.
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These days, who isn't tracking you?
If you believe it's just online companies that track your shopping behavior, better think again. Retail companies secretly track your behavior too, particularly how often you return merchandise. Click here to see who is doing what.