If you don’t understand just how much data big tech has on you — and what it can be used for — consider the case of Zachary McCoy.
According to NBC News, Google was taken to court by the Gainesville, Florida, police and was going to turn over all of McCoy’s data to them if he didn’t go to court. The 30-year-old restaurant worker received this news out of the blue through email. The email said he had seven days before the data was released and offered only one clue to go on: a case number that dealt with a burglary at a 97-year-old woman’s house nearly a year earlier.
The Gainesville Police Department had zeroed in on McCoy because they’d obtained what’s known as a “geofence warrant,” which NBC described as “a police surveillance tool that casts a virtual dragnet over crime scenes, sweeping up Google location data — drawn from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections — from everyone nearby.”
Four days after the burglary, the Gainesville Police Department went to a judge and requested Google turn over records of devices using its services in the area during the window in which it was alleged the burglary happened.
There was McCoy’s problem. He used a cycling app which tracked his phone’s location and sent it to Google. On March 29, 2019, the day of the burglary, he’d done three loops in front of the burglary victim’s house. But then, he says, he always did numerous laps around the neighborhood.
After reviewing the data they got from the warrant and sifting through it, the police became interested in McCoy and decided to go back to Google so that they could find out more about who was behind the account.
“I was hit with a really deep fear,” McCoy said regarding the email.
“I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew the police wanted to get something from me,” he added. “I was afraid I was going to get charged with something, I don’t know what.”
McCoy had always tried to maintain anonymity online, he told NBC.
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“For most of his life, McCoy said, he had tried to live online anonymously, a habit that dated to the early days of the internet when there was less expectation that people would use their real names,” the network reported.
“He used pseudonyms on his social media accounts and the email account that Google used to notify him about the police investigation.”
And yet, as the user of an Android device with Google accounts, a wide swath of his online life was going to be turned over to police.
“I didn’t realize that by having location services on that Google was also keeping a log of where I was going,” McCoy said.
“I’m sure it’s in their terms of service but I never read through those walls of text, and I don’t think most people do either.”
“It was a nightmare scenario,” he added. “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.”
McCoy talked to his parents, who were able to pay for a lawyer, Caleb Kenyon. Kenyon was the one who originally discovered the information was obtained via a geofence warrant. His first move was to get on the phone and talk with police, telling them that “you’re looking at the wrong guy.”
Kenyon then filed a motion in court saying that the warrant was unconstitutional, arguing it basically took data from every individual in the area simply because they were in the area.
“This geofence warrant effectively blindly casts a net backwards in time hoping to ensnare a burglar,” Kenyon wrote. “This concept is akin to the plotline in many a science fiction film featuring a dystopian, fascist government.”
However, very few geofence warrants are ever challenged in court. The warrants are obtained in secret with a request to Google (which is the only company that shares, or has the ability to share, that kind of data, according to The New York Times); sometimes defense lawyers aren’t even aware of the fact they’ve been granted, NBC reported.
That should scare you, given the fact that requests for this type of warrant have grown dramatically over the past two years.
In McCoy’s case, the police department said additional details in his data led them to believe that he wasn’t the burglar and they withdrew the warrant. The legal challenge was similarly withdrawn — although, as Kenyon pointed out, “the larger privacy fight will go unanswered.” Kenyon would also meet with police and show them months of data which proved he rode by the house frequently. This more or less exonerated McCoy without his having to turn over his entire digital life.
How many of us, however, would be able to afford a lawyer or get to court within seven days? McCoy still says he regrets having to spend the cash, even though he understands the plight of the woman involved.
“I’m definitely sorry that happened to her, and I’m glad police were trying to solve it,” he told NBC. “But it just seems like a really broad net for them to cast. What’s the cost-benefit? How many innocent people do we have to harass?”
Probably a lot more, if the trend holds.
Governments love your data. Take a look at China, which attempts to keeps tabs on every aspect of its citizens’ digital lives. They’re hardly alone. While we certainly aren’t China and we certainly support police, we also support police restraint and our constitutional rights.
Just because something can solve a crime doesn’t mean it should be in the hands of law enforcement. In this case, it would have directly implicated an innocent man. If you think this wouldn’t necessarily lead to an arrest because the police would be careful enough, consider the case of Jorge Molina.
According to the Phoenix New Times, he was arrested and charged with murder based on a geofence warrant. Six days later, the case against him collapsed.
When we allow law enforcement access to data, we have to ask when the benefits outweigh the risks. This raises a wider question, though: Why is Google acquiescing to this? This very much terra nova at best and blatantly unconstitutional at worst. And yet, the tech giant is playing right along with this — and you’re playing right along, too, by handing over your data.
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