Outsourcing Police Investigations to Google Risks Privacy and Justice


While the evidence suggests that reverse search warrants are becoming more common, legal experts say it’s not clear whether their use will affect the reliability of arrests and convictions, and there’s certainly a chance such warrants could have negative ramifications.

“I believe that the use of Google location data will lead to investigations and arrests that would not have happened but for this data,” said Marina Medvin, a legal expert and founding attorney at Medvin Law. “Simultaneously, law enforcement will cease pursuing certain leads that are not corroborated by the location data, and hence, will not arrest suspects based on lack of corroborative information or in lieu of new leads. The new information will simultaneously endanger and protect.”

Medvin is cautious as to whether the use of aggregated data could lead the authorities astray more than it would lead them along the right path, if only because arrest and prosecution standards have always relied on “probable cause,” meaning that at least a minimal degree of uncertainty has almost always been present in criminal cases. That said, she acknowledges that Google data are inherently different from other, more traditional kinds of evidence, such as that provided by fingerprints.

“While a fingerprint is entirely unique to the individual, Google location data is unique only to a phone: a handheld device that does not reliably corroborate the identity of the user of said device at the specific moment,” she says. “So, while your phone was at a particular place, [that] does not mean that you were there too. This personally unidentifiable data will always lead to big questions of reasonable doubt at trial.”

The possibility of doubt or error might be disconcerting for any future defendants, but Medvin notes that the use of reverse Google data could eventually be taken up by defense as well as prosecution teams, something which could effectively balance out the play of forces.

“Looking on the opposite side of the spectrum in cases where there is no Google location data, or where the location data puts the accused in a different location, defense attorneys will be able to argue that a lack of Google location data exonerates their client,” she says. “This is no different than when we argue that our clients’ prints were not found on certain pieces of evidence, and hence, there is reasonable doubt that our client is not the culprit.”

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