According to a recent New York Times report, U.S. law enforcement officials are accessing Google’s location-tracking database to solve crimes.

U.S. law enforcement officials can reportedly obtain a warrant to access Google’s Sensorvault database, which is home to the tech giant’s location records of hundreds of millions of smartphone and other device users all around the world. Generally, the data held in the database is harvested by Google for the purpose of specifically targeting information to Google users based on their location. However, it can also be accessed by law enforcement via court order so that they can reportedly sift through the database in a process called geofencing where they can request information about the devices in use at a specific location and time, thereby making it possible for law enforcement to create a list of devices in use at or around the scene of a crime.

Once law enforcement whittles down the results, identifying devices with potential links to the crime, Google then supplies them with a list of device owner’s names.

Critics of the scheme, however, are concerned that this level of surveillance means that innocent people potentially in the wrong place at the wrong time will become suspects in crimes that law enforcement is struggling to solve. However, law enforcement maintains that there is more to it than simply identifying if a user was near the scene of the crime.

“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty,” said Gary Ernsdorff, a senior prosecutor in Washington State. Potential suspects are still fully investigated, he added. “We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.”

Likewise, Google insists that the process still maintains user privacy.

“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” Richard Salgado, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, said in a statement.

“We have created a new process for these specific requests designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed and only producing information that identifies specific users where legally required.”

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