Google location data turned a random biker into a burglary suspect

A Florida man who used a fitness app to track his bike rides found himself a suspect in a burglary when police used a geofence warrant to collect data from nearby devices, an NBC News investigation finds. Zachary McCoy had never been in the home where the burglary occurred, but by leaving his location settings on for the RunKeeper app, he unwittingly provided information about his whereabouts to Google, which placed him at the scene of the crime.

Since McCoy had biked past the house where the burglary took place three times on the day of the alleged crime — part of his usual route through the neighborhood — he was deemed a suspect. NBC News says Google’s legal investigations team contacted McCoy in January, notifying him that Gainesville police were demanding information from his Google account.

He was eventually cleared as a suspect, but not before hiring a lawyer to help him figure out exactly what data police were seeking. The geofence warrant— a type of search warrant— required Google to provide data from any devices it recorded near the scene of the burglary, including location. This data is usually drawn from Android location services; collection can be turned off from the “accounts” menu in settings.

Law enforcement requests for geofence warrants have risen sharply in the past several years NBC News notes, rising 1500 percent from 2017 to 2018 and another 500 percent between 2018 and 2019. Last year, the New York Times highlighted the 2018 case of Jorge Molina, accused in an Arizona homicide after police used a geofence warrant that suggested he was near the scene of the crime. The case against Molina eventually fell apart as new evidence came to light.

Last month, Google announced it was putting new restrictions on which Android apps can track location in the background, with all new Google Play apps that seek background access subject to a review process, beginning in August.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.