Surveillance cameras captured the loud thump of bicyclist Pamela Morehouse being hit from behind on a Sunday evening bike ride in Crescent City, California, three miles from the Pacific Ocean near the Oregon state line.
Witnesses heard a manual transmission truck rushing through its gears while screeching away – but didn’t catch a good glimpse.
The driver who called 911 had found Morehouse facedown on the shoulder of the road, her pulse fading. Morehouse, 55, died at a nearby hospital with broken ribs and neck and a brain hemorrhage.
For months, all police had was that footage. It showed a crumpled orange bike and a dark-colored pickup speeding from the scene, but its license plate number was not visible.
“There was a complete lack of evidence,” California Highway Patrol Officer Ted Luna said, and the case quickly went cold in the summer of 2018.
That changed after Luna learned how to use a geographical fence or “geofence,” a cutting-edge technology tapped by police to create a virtual corral around potential witnesses and suspects. Luna was able to file a warrant in court for Google to search its vast data files for which mobile devices crossed through the Del Norte County intersection around the time Morehouse was struck.
That new evidence provided a critical break. It led them to a suspect, who was arrested and faces a felony hit-and-run trial later this year.
“We went from zero to 100 pretty fast on what we got back from Google,” Luna said. “Without the geofence, this would have remained a cold case.”
Police investigating crimes are increasingly searching and seizing digital evidence. From emails and Facebook messages to data stored on cellphones and laptops, such information can provide critical insights.
The practice also raises concerns about invasion of privacy and questions about how frequently geofence actually solves crimes. Public information on how police and tech companies work together provides scant details and sheds little light on the rigor of court oversight.
Just as when police want to search a home or business for evidence of a crime, geofences and other electronic seizures require a warrant – and the number of warrants granted is on the rise.
Google’s own statistics show geofence warrants now represent more than a quarter of the 40,000 search warrants received by the company each year, nearly all of them from local law enforcement. That’s about a fourfold increase since 2018. Facebook fielded 64,000 search warrants last year from U.S. law enforcement.
USA TODAY analyzed 200 warrants that allowed police in California, the incubator for these modern technologies, to search and seize digital property during criminal investigations from 2018 to the first half of 2021. They originated with departments large and small – from the thousands-strong ranks of the sheriff's departments patrolling Southern California’s massive counties, to the dozens of officers protecting Lost Coast beach towns and Sierra Nevada ski resorts.
The court filings provide only a small window into all criminal warrants seeking personal data. Many are sealed from public view and may never become part of a public criminal case because of the secrecy afforded by police and prosecutors.
The 200 searches analyzed related to a variety of crimes, from homicides to insurance fraud, from armed ATM robberies to home burglaries.
Police in San Diego used the technology to try to identify a person suspected of throwing rocks at cars driving on the Coronado Bridge in 2018. In Montclair, they hoped to build a case against a man accused of fatally shooting a 14-year-old. In the city of Orange, they sought to identify the people present when a gas station was robbed and, in a separate case, when a teenager was beaten up and his skateboard stolen.
Most of the 200 warrants reviewed were for targeted searches of one device or an electronic account. Just 17 deployed the broader type of Google geofence warrant used in the Crescent City case.
Most of those sought to generate leads in languishing cases, with police pursuing the warrants an average of 195 days after the suspected crime. They often detailed in their request to the judges their hopes that the data could jumpstart an investigation that had lost momentum.
For private data to become criminal evidence, investigators have to filter through the digital scraps left by those they are investigating, often without the targets’ knowledge and without knowing what, if anything, they will find. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft own the data that makes it all possible – and lots of extraneous data as well.
Geofence searches have been criticized by privacy advocates and criminal justice experts alike because any attempt to identify a culprit can sweep up information from a vast number of innocent bystanders.
The FBI used a series of geofence warrants to track down anyone near the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, riots. Privacy advocates in New York have raised concerns that police in states with abortion bans could drop a digital dragnet over clinics in the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Google representatives pledged in July to automatically delete location history for users who visit sensitive locations such as domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers and addiction treatment facilities.
California has passed among the most restrictive electronic communication privacy laws, now replicated in many other states. The law requires police to inform the targets of their digital searches; however, they routinely are granted extensions of months – even years – to do so.
New York legislators, meanwhile, are considering a bill that would be the first in the nation to outlaw the geofence tactic entirely.
Interviews with detectives and police training professionals, along with reviews of their warrant documents, letters, emails and correspondence with Google, underscore the experimental and exploratory ways in which geofence warrants are being used.
“I have spoken with other investigators, some with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, who have authored a geographical fence location warrant similar to this one,” one officer wrote in a warrant related to a robbery at a Chevy dealership.
“I know that in one such case, at the time the warrant was authored, there was no known suspect… However, the (warrant results) did indicate that a cellular phone was at the location of the crime, and proved valuable evidence of who committed the crime.”
One detective in Orange County wrote a warrant for a year-old robbery investigation saying that he hadn’t previously known of the tactic, and that “A search by Google LLC may be the last investigative attempt to identify the suspects.”
In another robbery investigation that had gone cold in that county, a detective noted that the search could be helpful because “Google LLC does not specify a retention period for the data,” and could provide helpful device information even though the warrant was filed about a year after the incident.
Bank robbery shows how geofence works
A Virginia bank robbery case in 2019 drew attention from Fourth Amendment scholars as a vital test of the emerging technology. The information provided in the case illustrates how the technique works and the legal questions it raises.
A man with a gun walked into a credit union in Midlothian, Virginia, just before closing and passed a note to the teller demanding “at least 100K.” After leading the teller to a vault at gunpoint he made off with a bag containing $195,000 in cash.
Police obtained a geofence warrant for any devices within a 150-meter circle surrounding the bank – about three football fields – over more than an hour. About a third of Google users have location history services enabled on their devices and records show the tech company knows a user’s location down to about 10 feet.
When Google receives this kind of warrant, the company runs through an internal three-step procedure. First, it usually turns over a list of devices with timestamps indicating that they were in the area at the time. For the Midlothian bank robbery, that list included 19 devices.
The list is de-identified, however, meaning each device is anonymous, given a random code in place of the user’s name.
Police review the list to see if any appear relevant to the investigation based on factors such as how long the device was at the scene of a crime. Then, they can ask Google to provide additional geolocation coordinates. Those coordinates can be plotted on a map and show police a virtual breadcrumb trail of a suspect.
In a final step under Google’s guidelines, when the company determines police have narrowed their request sufficiently, it can provide the names and emails associated with specific accounts and devices.
In Virginia, police suspected three of the listed devices could have been the perpetrator’s. So, they went back to Google and asked for more information on those three. The company divulged names and emails.
Prosecutors charged the owner of one of those devices, Okello Chatrie, with armed robbery. Then, a challenge to the geofence warrant delayed the case for years and saw Google file its first brief detailing the internal processing of the warrants.
While the company didn’t take a side in the case or validity of the warrant, it argued that the process provides ample privacy protections. It said it’s bound by the Stored Communications Act, a federal law that outlines warrants for electronic information while adhering to the Fourth Amendment that “requires probable cause and particularity.”
A judge ultimately allowed the charges to stand and, earlier this year, Chatrie pleaded guilty to armed robbery and use of a firearm. He was sentenced in August to nearly 12 years in prison.
Geofence is not a universal success
The ubiquity of smartphones suggests that geofence searches could work magic in solving most crimes. That isn’t always true.
Lynn and Janice Bjorklund had just gone to bed at their vacation home on California’s Central Coast when local police pounded on their door.
Their house back in Orange County had been burglarized. Several men in ski masks had broken in through a side door on a Monday afternoon, grabbed a pillowcase and filled it with jewelry, a vintage knife and other valuables.
The April 2019 theft was captured on the Bjorklunds’ security cameras, which recorded one of the burglars leaving with what appeared to be a cellphone in his hand.
“They had called a pickup truck at that point, and were off in minutes,” Janice Bjorklund said.
While the crime scene provided few clues for the Orange County Sheriff’s deputies dispatched to the residence, the suspect’s cellphone offered a shred of hope.
The deputies said they had been doing geofence searches recently and would try one here. But the search of all devices in the area of their home didn’t prove useful.
“Device identification geographical location returns to an area not within the Geo Fence I requested in the search warrant,” the investigator wrote in the warrant return.
The Bjorklunds were disappointed by the news, and their case remains unsolved.
In another case with few leads, Del Norte County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerrin Gill attempted to request geolocation data for Max Greenfield, 25, who went missing in March 2018. Greenfield was last captured on a surveillance camera leaving a casino in Smith River, a town near the Oregon border.
The geofence wasn’t successful. The missing person did not have an active service provider and used his phone on Wi-Fi only. Once out of range of a Wi-Fi connection, the trace of his phone, and his location, vanished.
County courts keep records of warrants filed by police and most counties contacted keep warrant filings separate from the criminal cases that could grow from them. But no counties contacted were able to provide data on how many searches connected to suspect identification, charges filed, or prosecution – or offered another metric to prove geofence’s value.
The Placer County Sheriff’s Department in California has used the technology at least six times, according to records reviewed by the USA TODAY Network. However, Placer County Sheriff Lt. Nelson Resendes said the department would not talk about the technology because speaking publicly could undermine its efficacy.
USA TODAY found evidence that two of the six warrants led to useful information, but it’s unclear what specific role the Google data played compared to other evidence.
A detective with the department requested data from Google in connection with a carjacking and kidnapping investigation in late 2019. A man sleeping in his truck awoke to a man with a gun demanding his wallet and telling him to crouch on the passenger side floorboard. The suspect used the victim’s ATM card at a nearby gas station before fleeing.
Two suspects were charged in connection with the investigation and both have pleaded guilty, court records show.
Paul Comiskey, the attorney for one of the defendants, said that the geofence findings were presented at his client’s preliminary hearing, but he hardly remembered them because they were “peripheral as evidence.” He has represented one other case in which such evidence was used and similarly, he said, it was “quite useless.”
“I guess some detective who is a computer nerd can sit in his office, play with technology and try and find stuff,” Comiskey said.
In Ukiah, California, Police Lt. Andy Phillips submitted a warrant in 2015 for geofence records related to a fatal shooting. It was his first foray into the world of geofence and, he said, will likely be his last.
Phillips was confident that he had determined the identity of the shooters, a group of people captured by security cameras walking through a medical center parking lot a short time before the shooting. Facebook accounts were searched and phone numbers were obtained. Google could have provided the key to breaking the case if it had been able to locate the suspects’ phones at the scene.
Instead, Phillips said Google provided him with one anonymized breadcrumb trail that led back and forth between the area of the shooting and an address he was all-too-familiar with: the local California Highway Patrol substation.
The shooting happened in a densely populated area of the small town, with hundreds of nearby apartments where even more smartphones were very likely sending data to Google while users slept or streamed movies late into the evening. Yet the only ID Phillips received from Google was that of a California Highway Patrol officer dispatched to the shooting.
“I find it hard to believe there was no one else there,” he said.
The case remains open, the killer remains at large and Phillips remains dissatisfied with the lack of transparency he felt Google offered him during the process.
“Is this all the info they have or all they would say?” Phillips asked. “There is no way to hold Google accountable for what they give you and what they don’t give you.”
A digital footprint helps solve the hit-and-run
The initial break in the Crescent City hit-and-run case that killed the bicyclist didn’t directly identify the suspect, according to the investigator who cracked open the case. Instead, Luna said he got “two great witnesses.”
Because the case is ongoing, Luna would not divulge exactly what they told him.
Court records show the geofence warrant returned associates of the man they ultimately accused of striking the woman with his Mitsubishi pickup.
Once Luna narrowed in on a device that appeared to be connected with the hit-and-run vehicle based on time and location data, he submitted a “piggyback” warrant to get more information: location data for that device 10 days before and 10 days after the fatal crash.
“Did they dump the vehicle? Did they take it to a repair shop? These were the leading questions.” Luna said. “We were able to see which residences it went to and the stores it went to.”
Luna said he questioned the witnesses, who told him which direction the vehicle went after the collision – information that lined up with the Google data.
In July 2021, prosecutors charged Jason Bryan Wilson, 24, with felony hit and run. Wilson has a poor driving record in Del Norte County, including guilty pleas and fines for speeding, failure to stop at a stop sign and making an unsafe turn. Wilson’s attorney declined to comment for this story.
That arrest was news to Morehouse’s family when contacted by USA TODAY in June. They had assumed the case would remain unsolved. No one had told them otherwise.
“I wish he would have just stopped – who knows if he was distracted or what?” her brother, Jeff Morehouse, said of the hit-and-run driver.
Wilson was interviewed as a potential suspect soon after Morehouse was killed in 2018, but lied to investigators and actively obscured his trail, police say.
During his first interview, in 2019, Wilson told Luna “he had a heart” and wouldn’t leave the scene of a crash. After being confronted again in 2021, he attempted to block police from searching his vehicle in a storage unit – but they ultimately received another warrant and seized the truck.
“The false information provided by Wilson obstructed and delayed investigators, resulting in additional extensive investigative work that spanned a period of two years after this collision occurred,” court records say.
Luna considers the geofence tool a supplement to other detective work. In advising area departments, he underscores that the more information you know upfront and the more precise you can be about timeframes and locations, the more effective geofence will be.
“That was one of the things I learned initially: This isn’t a tool you use all by itself,” Luna said.
Working in a rural area gives him an edge, too, since less density means fewer devices, making it easier to filter out users.
“Is it better in areas like this? Sure. It’s probably easier,” Luna said. “Downtown LA, San Diego, Sacramento – not that you can’t use it there; you’ve just gotta be smarter about how you’re using it.”
Privacy concerns mount as tech advances
Retired Riverside County District Attorney Supervising Investigator Ryan Bodmer agrees. Bodmer had become a department expert on the technology and provided regional training on geofence and laws regulating its use. He’s now an adjunct professor at Cerritos College, a community college in Los Angeles County, where he teaches courses related to law enforcement.
Bodmer likens a person’s smartphone to a digital footprint that could provide investigators with information essential to building a case: “Whatever your phone is doing is often a good reflection of what you’re doing.”
But unlike evidence discarded at a crime scene that investigators are free to collect, the details related to a person’s phone use are privately owned.
“We don’t own a person’s digital footprint,” Bodmer said.
That’s where the warrants come in. Bodmer maintains that the technology is being used responsibly by police. He said warrants have to be very detailed about what they are asking for and why. Google’s method of anonymizing user identification data, he said, initially prevents invasions of privacy.
“They won’t share anything without a court order,” Bodmer said. “This is information access on specific cases in full compliance with the law and with the Fourth Amendment.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that the still-emerging benefits of geofence use outweigh the potential costs to privacy.
Each advancement in policing technology has streamlined the process of privacy invasion, says Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the New York-based Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
“Imagine the scenario where you can use a single geofence warrant to identify every single person going to a mosque or reproductive health site or political rally,” Cahn said. “It allows you at almost zero cost to identify people in a way that would have strained even the largest national security agencies just years ago.”
He does worry that small-town sheriffs will use geofences to track down perpetrators of petty crimes – such as graffiti and shoplifting – with few limits or checks.
Cahn pointed to the history of mistaken identity with geofences: innocent people accused of crimes that could put them in prison for decades. A Florida bike rider was wrongly accused of burglary in 2020 and an Arizona man was fingered for murder based on a faulty warrant result in 2018.
Google spokesman Matt Bryant said the company has procedures to protect user data within the company and when it decides how much to release to police.
“We have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” he said.
Mike Price, litigation director at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Fourth Amendment Center, said innocent bystanders of crimes are inevitably being scooped up in the dragnet.
Price says police are “hitting the easy button” on their investigations and allowing Google far too much control over their process as “adjunct detectives.”
“By design, these warrants seize data from innocent people. Every time the government does one of these searches, they’re searching everyone’s account that’s enabled,” Price said. “It’s not Constitutional for any use. These are general warrants and the very thing the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent.”
Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @chris_a_damien. Nick Penzenstadler is on the USA TODAY investigations team. He can be reached at email@example.com; on Twitter @npenzenstadler or via Signal: (720) 507-5273.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Google's geolocation data may solve crimes, raises privacy concerns