The amount of location data that Google collects from people who use Android smartphones is massive and very precise. The location history that Google collects from smartphones that use their Android operating system is known to be much more precise than the location data that is collected by wireless service providers.
Although a person’s Google location history is not publicly available to other people, it can be used by businesses to target online advertising, and it is available to law enforcement agencies via warrants.
Location history is only collected by Google for people who have enabled the option in their smartphone settings. It is also possible for users who have enabled location tracking to go into their Google account and edit and delete their location information.
Whereas location data that is collected by phone service providers is only accurate to within an area around the size of a city block; Google’s location data is precise enough to pinpoint the exact building, business or place that a person was in at a given point in time.
The reason for this difference in location precision is because Google can access an Android user’s location at the operating system level; while phone service providers can only guesstimate the location based on the person’s proximity to the nearest cell phone tower. As a result, location information obtained from phone service providers is often ruled inadmissible in criminal court cases.
This Android location history for people can be a goldmine for online marketers. It can also be a treasure trove of incriminating evidence that can be used by police against suspects in criminal investigations.
In fact, the location history that Google collects from Android smartphone users is so precise, it can be used to prove that a person was located at a crime scene for a specific time and place. As a result, more and more police departments are getting warrants and demanding access to Google’s location information to help solve criminal cases.
People’s location data is collected and saved by Google’s Location History system. The feature that allows Google to collect this location history is called Google Timeline, and it works in conjunction with Google Maps to create a location timeline for Android users. Google’s Timeline feature was announced in July 2015.
However, the Google Timeline tool isn’t as reliable and precise when collecting location history on people who use Apple’s iPhone, since iPhone users have to download, install and activate a separate app to enable the Google Timeline tracking feature.
The Verge blog reports that they have found affidavits in two separate criminal cases, where location data for two Android users was demanded from Google by police with warrants. Both of these requests for location data occurred in the first half of 2016 and involved crimes that occurred in 2015. One of the criminal cases involved a bank robbery suspect in California and the other case involved a suspect who was believed to be behind a dozen business robberies in the Washington D.C. area.
It is not known whether these warrants ever resulted in Google turning over any location data to authorities. No location-based evidence from Google was used in the California suspect’s trial and the suspect involved in the Washington D.C. robberies ended up pleading guilty.
It is also not clear how many of these warrant-backed requests for location data have been submitted to Google, since some of these requests can be legally sealed from the public record. So far, no court records have been found that show location data being requested on suspects who used iPhones and Apple Maps.
As more law enforcement officials learn that Google location history for Android users is available to them through warrant requests, it is likely that the number of these data requests will go up in the future. After all, the ability to obtain a suspect’s location history during and after a crime is committed will be valuable in solving recent crimes as well as old cold cases.
According to Google’s policies regarding location history data, the company only complies with requests for location history data that come with a warrant.
According to Apple, they also collect location information for iPhone users, but their location information is anonymized and can’t be used to identify individual users.
For more information on the Google location history timeline, read our post Google Maps Now Shows Your Location History.
To learn how to manage and delete your Location History, visit the Google support page at Manage and delete your Location History.