Hand over the data, and no one gets hurt.

The FBI wants Google to turn over location data on its users in close proximity and time to four robberies in Virginia. To date Google claims that it will not honor such broad requests. These “reverse location” requests, which are not tied to a specific device, may be unconstitutional; they are similar to overly broad “general warrants,” which violate the Fourth Amendment. But this case does beg the question: does the elimination of racial profiling through big data policing outweigh the people’s right to privacy?

Does Elimination of Unconscious Bias Overrule Right to Privacy?

In the Virginia case, there were four separate robberies with similar modus operandi at the same Dollar Tree store between March and September. Police have not been able to catch the suspect, but they are hoping to find some overlap in someone being in the vicinity of the crime all four times. So they have asked Google to provide information on its users —  Android phone owners, or anyone running an Google app, such as Maps or Gmail or GCal. Seems like an easy way to catch a criminal, without racial, or otherwise unconscious or implicit bias.

But the flip side is that this turns into a fishing expedition, and unknowing people are caught in the net. Such speculative probing could be a violation of people’s privacy rights who just had the misfortune of literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though these “reverse location” requests are rather unprecedented, these are unprecedented days in the arena of big data, and courts will have to perform a balancing act to see if the benefits outweigh the costs.

These FBI Requests Are Just the Beginning

Google shared data with law enforcement almost every time it had previously been requested. But these cases are a new breed: instead of finding a suspect, and then searching that person’s data, police are searching big data to pinpoint a potential suspect. In a Maine probe, which was the first known occasion that the FBI issued a reverse location warrant, Google dragged its feet enough on the FBI requests, and eventually a suspect was arrested without using Google’s data. But it’s possibly just a matter of time before the issue comes to a constitutional head.

If you believe reverse location, or other forms of general warrants, were used in your arrest, contact a local civil rights attorney. Reverse location, and other uses of big data, will be coming soon to a courtroom near you. Though the issue is currently cloudy, you may be able to help protect your information in the cloud.

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