Google Tracked an Innocent Biker who Rode Past a Burglarized Home, Then He Became a Suspect
In January, a Florida resident received a shocking email from Google’s legal investigations support team.
Zachary McCoy was preparing to leave for work at a restaurant in Gainesville, Florida.
NBC News reported that local police were demanding that McCoy turn over information related to his Google account.
The company said it would hand over the data unless he went to court and tried to block it. He only had seven days to get this settled.
“I was hit with a really deep fear,” McCoy, 30, said, although he couldn’t think of any crime he had committed. McCoy had an Android phone, which was connected to his Google account, which has a wide array of Google products, including Gmail and YouTube. At the time, law enforcement wanted access to all of it.
“I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew the police wanted to get something from me,” McCoy said during a recent interview. “I was afraid I was going to get charged with something, I don’t know what.”
In the notice from Google McCoy found and searched for it on the Gainesville Police Department’s website. From there, he found a one-page investigation report on the burglary of an elderly woman’s home from ten months prior. The crime took place less than a mile from the home that McCoy shared with two other roommates.
McCoy became even more confused. He knew he was never involved in the burglary and had never been to the victim’s house.
McCoy was afraid that going to the police would have him arrested. He then went to his parents’ home to explain the situation, which led them to find a lawyer to help out McCoy in this bizarre case.
The lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, discovered that the notice had been propelled by a “geofence warrant,” a police surveillance tool that initiates a systematic search of crime scenes, collecting Google location data, which is gathered from users’ GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular connections from everyone in a certain area.
These warrants, which have recently increased in issuance during the last two years, can help police locate potential suspects when leads go cold. They also collect data from people who have no involvement with the crime, often unknown to them. Even Google described this as “a significant incursion on privacy.”
McCoy checked his phone again. McCoy enjoys biking and he used an exercise-tracking app, RunKeeper, to keep a record of his rides. The app used his phone’s location services, which gave Google a record of his movement. He took a look at the route on the day of the March 29, 2019, burglary and realized that he had passed by the victim’s house three times within an hour. According to McCoy, this is part of the frequent loops he took through his neighborhood,
“It was a nightmare scenario,” McCoy recounted. “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.”
The victim of the burglary was a 97-year-old woman who informed police she had several pieces of jewelry, including an engagement ring, worth more than $2,000, stolen. Four days after she reported the burglary, Gainesville police went to an Alachua County judge with the warrant for Google.
In the warrant request, the police officer demanded records of all devices using Google services that were in the vicinity of the woman’s home when the burglary was supposed to have occured
Police agencies across the nation, including the FBI, have been using Google geofence warrants. In a court filing, Google revealed that geofence warrants requests from state and federal law enforcement authorities have been on the uptick recently. According to the NBC News article, “more than 1,500 percent from 2017 to 2018, and by 500 percent from 2018 to 2019.”
Thankfully, McCoy was no longer considered a suspect.
However, this should have privacy advocates concerned.
On the civil liberties front, Big Tech is also dangerous because of its unprecedented ability to track people’s movements. Combined with a power-hungry government, Big Tech could form an unholy alliance with the sole focus of controlling people’s behavior.
For political elites, this could be a dream come true. But for everyday Americans, this would be a dystopian nightmare.