In 2017, Raleigh, N.C., suffered its biggest fire in a century. The flames scorched 10 buildings, including churches and businesses. The fire caused $50 million in damages. Over the next year, authorities struggled to determine the fire’s cause. According to a report by local NBC affiliate WRAL, the Raleigh police went to extreme lengths to find out if an arsonist may have set the blaze. Investigators served a search warrant to Google, asking that the company to provide the coordinates of any phones that were in the area between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on the night of the fire. Police ended up classifying the fire’s cause as “undetermined,” reports Slate.
Police departments have been knocking at Google’s door with warrants to tap into the company’s extensive stores of cellphone location data. Known as “reverse location search warrants,” these legal mandates allow law enforcement to sweep up the coordinates and movements of every cellphone in a broad area. The police can then check to see if any of the phones came close to the crime scene. In doing so, the police can end up not only fishing for a suspect, but also gathering the location data of potentially thousands of innocent people. There have only been anecdotal reports of reverse location searches, so it’s unclear how widespread the practice is. Privacy advocates worry that Google’s data will eventually allow more departments to conduct indiscriminate searches. Google said, “We have an established process for managing requests for data about our users, and in these particular instances, require a search warrant. We always push back on overly broad requests to protect our users’ privacy.” WRAL found four instances in which the Raleigh Police Department sought reverse-location data in 2017 for investigations into murder, sexual battery, and the suspected arson.