When detectives near Phoenix arrested a warehouse worker in a murder case in December, they credited a new technique. Police told suspect Jorge Molina they had data tracking his phone to the site where a man was shot nine months earlier. They made the discovery after obtaining a search warrant that required Google to provide information on all devices it recorded near the killing, potentially capturing the whereabouts of anyone in the area, the New York Times reports. Investigators also had security video of someone firing a gun from a white Honda Civic, the same model Molina owned. After he spent nearly a week in jail, the case against him fell apart. Police arrested his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who sometimes used Molina’s car.
The warrants draw on an enormous Google database employees call Sensorvault. It is an example of how personal information — where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it — is being used for purposes many people never expected. As privacy concerns have mounted, tech companies have come under scrutiny over their data collection practices. The Arizona case demonstrates the promise and perils of the new technique, whose use has risen sharply in the past six months, according to Google employees familiar with the requests. It can help solve crimes, and it can also snare innocent people. Often, Google responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices. Law enforcement officials described the method as exciting, but cautioned that it was just one tool.