Innocent Man Arrested After Google Tracked His Location And Informed Police

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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.”

Google Tracked Location For Police

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.

“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.”

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.”


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