According to WRAL, North Carolina police have successfully convinced a Wake County judge to order Google to hand over the data records of citizens found to be within a digital corridor on the night or day of a specified crime scene. The state claims they have the right to access Google’s database in an effort to identify suspects in the area of a crime.
The two cases in question revolve around the murders of a taxi cab driver and another man killed in his driveway last year. Drawing on a satellite map, Raleigh police presented the Wake County judge with a highlighted area encompassing the crime scene. Any citizen that passed within this territory during an estimated time of criminal activity would be included in the digital roundup.
While privacy activists across the country criticized the news, county officials suggested that this is simply the natural evolution of forensic techniques. Raleigh police presented the tech giant with warrants to provide the digital information of any active cell phones found within the area of the two separate murders.
For one of the warrants, the judge ordered Google to hand over the data of any user within a 17 block radius of the crime scene. This area includes residential houses and businesses, meaning that the data dump could potentially include thousands of free and lawful citizen’s private information. Some have suggested this is a breach of our constitutional rights to search without due cause.
According to research, 92% of all Americans own a cellular device. While users have the option to turn off GPS location services, citizens can still be tracked by connected cellular networks that constantly monitor users. Google has remained quiet on the proceedings and offered a brief statement regarding how they decide to release information to authorities:
We have a long-established process that determines how law enforcement may request data about our users. We carefully review each request and always push back when they are overly broad. – Google
The statement suggests that Google protects the rights of its users up to a point. Without any specifics, however, it is tough to assume what their policy really is and how dedicated the tech giant is to its user’s private information. Furthermore, the data was not limited to Android users. Any user connected to a google app was targeted in the sweep. In the case of the two murders in Raleigh, perhaps the search optimization site was shown convincing evidence that compelled them to release the records of thousands of area citizens. Or perhaps this isn’t a battle the Silicon Valley enterprise wants to fight.
According to the presiding judge, this ruling does not allow for a limitless search of a user’s phone. Text messages, emails, and phone calls were precluded from the warrant although the judge suggested these could be obtained with through a different process. This ruling holds precedent in Orange County California where a digital search warrant to comb through the records of cellular users has been used in past cases.
Americans are not stupid. They know they are being watched and recognize that the monolithic tech giants of our age often have no recourse (or interest) in protecting the rights of their consumers. This decision stands and Google’s weak stance on privacy helps illuminate the reality that your right to digital privacy in The United States continues to be eroded with certainty and precision by a new grouping of technological authorities that seem not to possess an understanding or care for constitutional rights.
The fourth amendment to the constitution states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Constitutional advocates will recognize the issue with judges ordering private data of citizens that happen to pass through a geographical territory while a crime is committed. While the information could be used to prosecute a killer, it also serves to disenfranchise the property rights of the other 99.9% of citizens who have a right to be secure in their persons against unreasonable search. Ordering the release of is an unreasonable search.
What’s worse is that this sort of legislation will undoubtedly target minorities as it already did in the taxi driver case. Crime is highest in places of poverty, and if authorities are allowed the opportunity to search private citizen’s property based on territorial generalizations, it is a certainty that the weakest among us will only get weaker. Furthermore, this new technique could possess technological challenges. For instance, this modern form of analytics could lead to false accusations based simply on being within a 17 block area of a committed crime.
As we move into the era of complete technological adoption, clarification regarding privacy and the rights of individuals in the digital age are becoming contested issues. While officials suggest these new measures are in line with a mentality required to investigate crimes of the 21st-century, where does the breach of privacy end? Every inch we give up as Americans is another inch gained by the corporate monoliths of government and business. These latest cases are simply another example of how commonplace it has become for the state to monitor its citizens without their consent.
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