Law enforcement officials across the country are looking for information in a Google database called Sensorvault – a mine of detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices around the world, according to the New York Times.
Although the new technique can identify crime suspects, it risks sweeping innocent people, highlighting the impact that massive corporate data collection can have on people's lives.
Why does Google have this data?
The Sensorvault database is connected to a Google service called Location History. The feature, launched in 2009, concerns Android and Apple devices.
Location history is not enabled by default. Google invites users to activate it when configuring certain services – traffic alerts in Google Maps, for example, or group pictures linked to the location in Google Photos.
If location history is turned on, Google will collect your data while you're signed in to your account and Google Location-aware apps are set up on your phone. The company can collect data even when you are not using your applications, if the settings on your phone allow it.
Google says that it uses data to target ads and measure their effectiveness – by checking, for example, when people go to an advertiser's store. The company also uses the information in an aggregated and anonymous form to determine when the stores are busy and provide traffic estimates. And those who activate position history can see a timeline of their activities and get recommendations based on their location. Google states that it does not sell or share data with advertisers or other companies.
Does Google collect other forms of location data?
Yes. Google may also collect location information when you search or use Google apps for which location is enabled. If you are signed in, this data is associated with your account.
Last year, the Associated Press reported that these data, called Web Activities and Applications, are collected even if the Location History is not enabled. It is kept in a different database of Sensorvault, according to Google.
How can I see the data Google has about me?
To see some information in your location history, you can view: your chronology. This map of your travels does not include all your Sensorvault data.
Raw location data from mobile devices can be complicated and sometimes incorrect. But computers can guess what is most likely to be waiting for you and which locations are the most important. That's what you see on your calendar. To see your entire location history, you can download your data from Google. To do this, go to Takeout.Google.com and select Location History. You can follow a similar procedure to download your web and app activity on this page.
Your location history data will appear as computer code. If you can not read the code, you can select the format "JSON" and put the file in a text editor to see what it looks like.
Can I disable data collection?
Yes. The process varies depending on whether you are on the phone or on a computer. In his help center, Google provides instructions on deleting or deleting the history of places and web activity and applications.
How do the forces of order use the data?
For years, police detectives have issued warrants to search for location data related to specific user accounts.
But the new mandates, often called "geofence" requests, rather specify an area close to a crime. Google detects in Sensorvault all devices that were at the right time and provides this information to the police.
First, Google identifies devices with anonymous identification numbers, then the detectives examine the locations and patterns of displacement to determine whether they seem relevant to the crime. Once the field is reduced to a few devices, Google reveals information such as names and email addresses.