Close Enough: Police Departments Are Using “Reverse Location Search Warrants” to Force Google to Hand Over Data on Anyone Near a Crime Scene

On the night of March 16, 2017, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina suffered its biggest fire in a century. The flames scorched 10 buildings, including churches and businesses. A seven-story apartment complex, then under construction, was reduced to ashes. The fire ultimately caused $50 million in damages.

Over the next year, authorities investigated the fire but seemed to struggle to determine its cause. According to a report by local NBC affiliate WRAL, the Raleigh police went to extreme lengths to find out if an arsonist may have set the blaze. Investigators served a search warrant to Google, asking that the company to provide the coordinates of any phones that were in the area between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. on the night of the fire. It was likely for naught—police ended up classifying the cause of the fire as “undetermined.”

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