How to Stop Google’s Sensorvault From Sharing Your Location With Law Enforcement

Google Maps on an Android phone
Worawee Meepian / Shutterstock

Google's Sensorvault is a location history database that police can query to see phones near the scene of a crime. Google is the only company to have such a database – and innocent people have been arrested for this reason.

How does Sensorvault work?

According to one New York Times investigationSensorvault works with the help of historical places. This is included on Android and is part of some Google apps for iPhone. It is not enabled by default, but it is likely that you have been asked to activate it.

If location history is enabled, Google records a timeline of your trips (using GPS and / or location information from your smartphone) and makes it available to you as part of your Google account online. You can go back and see your trips on a given day. Google may use this information to better tailor search results and recommendations. Google says that it does not share this data with advertisers or other companies.

Google gathers the history data of the positions you provided in a database called "Sensorvault". The forces of order can interview with a warrant:

For years, police detectives have issued warrants to search for location data related to specific user accounts.

But the new mandates, often called "geofence" requests, rather specify an area close to a crime. Google detects in Sensorvault all devices that were at the right time and provides this information to the police.

First, Google identifies devices with anonymous identification numbers, then the detectives examine the locations and patterns of displacement to determine whether they seem relevant to the crime. Once the field is reduced to a few devices, Google reveals information such as names and email addresses.

Google indicates that this database was not created for law enforcement purposes, but that law enforcement certainly seized it. While Google is collection of other location data, Said Google The New York Times only the location data of the "Location History" function is stored in Sensorvault and the other location data is stored in a different database.

In theory, this other database could also be exploited with a mandate. The other location database could be much less useful than the Sensorvault database – and we did not see any reports that it would have access to.

Should you worry?

If you care about that, it's a personal decision. the New York Times The survey provides powerful reasons why you might want to worry about it. Of course, you are a law-abiding citizen, but you may find yourself on the verge of a crime. Do you want the cops to investigate you because you've been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

And, realistically, you do not need to make a lot of changes to extract your Sensorvault location data from Google. You can continue to use Google Maps and other Google services. They will be just a little less personalized after disabling Google's Location History service.

On the other hand, this location history data provides some nice customization features in your Google Account. Of course, if you are a law-abiding citizen, you probably will not be accidentally involved in an investigation. Whether you want to enable or disable this feature depends on you.

What about Apple carriers or cell phones?

Cellular communication towers
noolwlee / Shutterstock

For the moment, this type of dragon seems unique to Google, thanks to Google's mine of location data and this database:

Investigators who spoke with the New York Times said they did not send a public arrest warrant to companies other than Google, and Apple said it did not have the capacity to perform these searches. Google would not give details about Sensorvault, but Aaron Edens, an intelligence analyst at the sheriff's office in San Mateo County, California, who reviewed data from hundreds of phones, said that most Android devices and the iPhone that he had seen had these data available. from Google.

It should be noted that even if Google backs off and Apple still refuses to participate, your mobile carrier has information about your movements through the cell tower's login data.

The law enforcement forces are probably working with Google because these mobile operators do not have a convenient database to easily track and query this data. We would not be surprised if, in a few years, the mobile operators were following this information and making it available to the police in the same way.

For now, Google's location history seems to be the only service that can lead you to an investigation, simply because you're near a place at a certain date and time.

How to delete your Sensorvault location data

Only data associated with Google's Location History feature will appear in the vault. So, if you do not use the location history, you are good.

On an iPhone, your phone will not send location history data to Google unless you've installed Google apps, such as Google Maps, and turned on location history. Of course, many people have done it.

To check if location history is enabled, go to the History of the activity on the Google website and sign in with the same Google Account that you use on your phone. You can click the arrow next to "Devices on this account" to see which devices you own are transmitting position history information to Google.

If you are not on a PC, you can also disable the location history of your Android phone. On Android, you can head to the buried Settings> Google> Google Account> Data & Personalization> Activity Controls> Location History> Manage Settings screen.

To completely disable location history, disable the "Location History" slider here. This will "pause" the collection of the location history of all your devices. The data already collected will always be saved to your Google Account and you will be able to resume collection at any time.

To delete your data, you will need to go to Timeline page-You can click the "Manage Activity" link on the Activity History page to open it. This interface also displays all historical data from the location you have shared with Google and allows you to view them. Google introduced the Location History feature in 2009, so there could be a decade of data here. Google keeps your location history forever, until you delete it.

To delete the location history data, click on the gear in the lower right corner of the page and select "Delete all location history".

Do not forget to repeat this step if you have multiple Google Accounts and want to disable the location history of each of them.

All this is based on an excellent New York Times piece, and we encourage you to read it for more context. We're just explaining the technicalities, but the New York Times will explain all the other details.


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