Geofence Warrant Sends Bicyclist’s Privacy Over The Handlebars

About a year ago, Zachary McCoy cycled around his neighborhood in Gainesville, Florida. It may have been forgettable for him, but not for history. Because McCoy uses an app to track his mileage, the route is forever engraved in Google’s verse and attached to his name.

On the day of this unfortunate cycling, McCoy passed the house of a certain neighbor three times. While this was not usually alarming, the neighbor happened to be the victim of a burglary and stole thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. After a four-day investigation, Gainesville police have no clues, so they went to the county to get a geozone order. Thanks to all the location data McCoy voluntarily generated, he became the prime suspect..

Total geozone through Google

Cycling inside the geozone

McCoy had no idea about all this until he received a vague email from Google ten months after riding a bike. The e-mail stated that the police wanted access to all the information about his account and that Google would pass it on to them, unless it abandoned everything, found a lawyer and successfully blocked it in court for the next seven days.

The only clue in the email was a case number that led to a report of a hacking on the Gainesville Police Department’s website. Unsure of what to do, he turned to his parents, who hired a lawyer with money from their savings account. The lawyer quickly learned that McCoy had been attacked over a geozone order that allowed law enforcement to search The great archive of Google Sensorvault for a list of all mobile devices that have been active in a certain area for a certain period of time. This is the opposite of the innocent until proven, and as you can imagine, he fingers a lot of innocent people.

The only piece of confidentiality left in this situation is that McCoy will remain anonymous until the end of the seven-day period. Fortunately, McCoy’s lawyer was able to clear his name without letting it go to the police, although they certainly know it now that the case has become national news. How? The lawyer applied for the geographical fence order to be declared invalid, which brought the police back. The state prosecutor’s office told McCoy’s lawyer that they found details that took them away from his client and simply withdrew the order.

There is almost always a suitable xkcd.

EULA text walls are prisons for confidentiality

Like millions of people, Zachary McCoy is willing to sacrifice privacy for the sake of convenience. Our more ardent readers may be disappointed to learn that McCoy does not read these end-user license agreements with a long novel and do not realize that they allow Google to record wherever it has been, including its location. Although Google eventually made him hire a lawyer, they may not be the only bad person in this equation.

The app McCoy used to track his bike rides, RunKeeper, which launched in 2008, has been around for almost as long as the Android phones themselves. In 2016 the company that owns the app has had legal problems in Europe because RunKeeper not only continues to track users when they are not using it, but also sends user location data to a U.S.-based advertiser.

At this point, it’s a cliché, but it’s worth repeating: nothing is free except maybe your mother’s love. If you have no costs for you, then you are the product. Carefully consider what you are joining and give up while you can.

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