Google Maps on an Android phone
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Google’s Sensorvault is a location history database that police can query to see phones near the location of a crime. Google is the only company with such a database—and innocent people have been arrested because of it.

How Does Sensorvault Work?

According to a New York Times investigation, Sensorvault works using Location History. This is included on Android and is part of some Google apps for the iPhone. It’s not enabled by default, but there’s a good chance you’ve been asked to turn it on and have done so.

If you have location history enabled, Google stores a timeline of your movements—using your smartphone’s GPS and/or location information from your computer—and makes it available to you as part of your Google account online. You can go back and see your travels on a given day. Google can use this information to better tailor search results and recommendations to you. Google says it doesn’t share this data with advertisers or other companies.

Google gathers that location history data you’ve provided into a database named “Sensorvault,” and law enforcement can query it with a warrant:

For years, police detectives have given Google warrants seeking location data tied to specific users’ accounts.

But the new warrants, often called “geofence” requests, instead specify an area near a crime. Google looks in Sensorvault for any devices that were there at the right time and provides that information to the police.

Google first labels the devices with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices, Google reveals information such as names and email addresses.

Google says this database wasn’t made for law enforcement purposes, but law enforcement has certainly seized on it. While Google is collecting other location data, Google told The New York Times that only location data from the “Location history” feature is stored in Sensorvault and other location data is stored in a different database.

In theory, this other database could be tapped with a warrant,  too. The other location database might be much less useful than the Sensorvault database—and we haven’t seen any reports it’s been accessed.

Should You Care?

Whether you care about this is a personal decision. The New York Times investigation provides some powerful reasons you might want to care. Sure, you’re a law-abiding citizen—but you might end up near a crime. Do you want the cops to be investigating you because you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And, realistically, you don’t have to make much of a change to get your location history data out of Google’s Sensorvault. You can keep using Google Maps and other Google services—they’ll just be a bit less personalized after you disable Google’s location history service.

On the other hand, this location history data does provide some nice personalization features in your Google account—and sure, if you’re a law-abiding citizen, you probably won’t get accidentally swept up in an investigation. Whether you want to enable or disable this feature is up to you.

What About Apple or Cellular Carriers?

Cellular communications towers
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Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 6:40am