San Francisco: At a time when concerns over data collection and breach by tech majors are on the rise, it has been reported that US law enforcement officials have been turning to a particular Google database called “Sensorvault” to trace the location and other data of people as part of their investigations.
The database, that is otherwise maintained to collect user-information from Google products for ad targeting, contains detailed location records from hundreds of millions of phones from around the world, CNET reported on Saturday.
On coming under the question of exposing personal user data to law enforcement officials, the search engine giant ensured that the information obtained through the database is anonymous and that it reveals specific information only after the police has analyzed and narrowed down the devices which would be relevant to the investigation.
“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” the report quoted Richard Salgado, Director of law enforcement and information security at Google as saying.
Before the officials could use Google’s database for investigation purposes, they require a “geofence” warrant — that specifies an area and a time period that helps Google gather information about the devices that were available in the specified window.
“We have created a new process for these specific requests designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed and only producing information that identifies specific users where legally required,” Salgado added.
Even though law enforcement seeking help from tech giants is not uncommon, the use of “Sensorvault” data has raised concerns about innocent people who could be wrongly or mistakenly implicated.
“The New York Times interviewed a man who was arrested last year in a murder investigation after Google’s data had reportedly landed him on the police’s radar. But he was released from jail after a week when investigators pinpointed and arrested another suspect,” the report added, citing an example of an innocent getting into trouble because of Google’s data.
Tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have been under global scrutiny following the countess data leak, hacking and non-consensual collection of data scandals.
Facebook particularly, become infamous after it admitted in April 2018 that information of up to 87 million people, mostly US citizens, may have been improperly shared with the British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.
Google has also been subjected to scrutiny after it was revealed that the search engine giant had been tracking people’s location even after they turned off location-sharing on their Android phones.
According to information available on public domains, in 2017, Android accounted for more than 80 percent of all smartphone sales to end users worldwide and by 2020, 85 percent
of all smartphones would run the Google-owned operating system.