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Google location data turned innocent cyclist into robbery suspect

A Florida man became the suspect of a robbery investigation just because he happened to ride past a burglarized house.

Published onMarch 9, 2020

Google Geofencing Warrant suspect

When you go out for a bike ride and carry your smartphone to track your activity, the last thing you probably worry about is getting in trouble with the law.

Zachary McCoy from Gainesville, Florida also thought he was simply tracking a ride when he rode past a burglarized house — a route he would often take while cycling around his neighborhood. Little did he know that his efforts to stay fit would end up making him a suspect in a robbery.

As reported by NBC News, McCoy unknowingly became the subject of a burglary investigation because of his Google location data. Here’s how the bizarre events unfolded.

What happened?

McCoy was using the RunKeeper app to track his biking activity. He had turned on Google’s location services, thereby allowing the app and Google to track his whereabouts at all times.

One day, to his surprise, he received an email from Google’s legal investigations support team. The email informed him that the local police had demanded information related to his Google account. The company said that the data would be released to the cops if McCoy didn’t get a block order from the court in seven days.

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The cyclist was hit with a “really deep fear” after reading the email. When he tracked down the case number mentioned in Google’s notice, he realized it was related to a break-in that had happened in a house which is a mile away from his own.

McCoy said he didn’t know the victim and had never visited the house in question. He did, however, own an Android phone linked to his Google account.

McCoy’s parents then dipped into their savings to hire an attorney. The lawyer, Caleb Kenyon, dug deeper and found out that the email from Google was prompted by a geofence warrant — something that allows police to scan all the location data from a crime scene.

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Google had apparently already shared McCoy’s anonymized location data with the police. It didn’t reveal his identity, but proved he was in the area on the day of the March 2019 robbery.

McCoy then put together the pieces of the puzzle by opening up his RunKeeper app. He looked up his route on the day of the burglary and saw that he had passed that house three times in the span of an hour. Surely, this is what caught the attention of the police, he thought.

“It was a nightmare scenario,” McCoy recalled. “I was using an app to see how many miles I rode my bike and now it was putting me at the scene of the crime. And I was the lead suspect,” he told NBC News.

The outcome

Thankfully, McCoy and his lawyer Kenyon were able to file a motion in the Alachua County civil court to block the data request. Google had not released McCoy’s name and other information to the police at that point, but had he not intervened, the company would have done so.

'This concept is akin to the plotline in many a science fiction film featuring a dystopian, fascist government.'

Kenyon argued that the geofence warrant was unconstitutional and goes against the traditional approach of making someone a suspect in a crime. Instead of finding proof to link someone to a crime, this method asks for information regarding many unrelated people in order to find a suspect.

“This geofence warrant effectively blindly casts a net backwards in time hoping to ensnare a burglar,” Kenyon was quoted as saying. “This concept is akin to the plotline in many a science fiction film featuring a dystopian, fascist government.”

The motion filed by McCoy and his attorney made law enforcement rethink their warrant. They withdrew the request for McCoy’s Google data and ruled him out as a suspect.

The takeaway

According to Google’s transparency report, user data requests by authorities are becoming increasingly rampant. They’ve even led to wrongful arrests in cases as severe as murder.

While these tools might be useful in catching actual criminals, they are also a threat to innocent people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Cases like McCoy’s also raise questions about the larger debate around privacy and data ownership. Unlike McCoy, not everyone can afford an attorney to help them out in a case like this. Most people wouldn’t even know such requests can be blocked, let alone hiring a lawyer to do so.

Do you think warrants like this have gone too far? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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