What does Google know about the alleged author of the Seseña fire (and most of us) | Technology


The case of the fire of millions of tires in Seseña (Toledo) depends on Google. Three years ago a huge column of smoke rose from a field between the Madrid municipality of Valdemoro and the town of Toledo. The case is still unresolved in the absence of Google responding to a request made more than a year ago by the court number 7 of Valdemoro, as published by EL PAÍS last Sunday.

This petition serves to better understand how the usual collaboration with the police and the courts of a company that knows almost everything about us works.

1. Why Google is used in the case of Seseña. Google is a rare resource in Spain to locate where the alleged criminals are on the day of the crime. There is a closer alternative: "Many times you go to the operators, with the identifier of the terminal you request the triangulation with the mobile phone antennas and how the providers are in Spain they answer you faster", says Sergio Carrasco, lawyer of technological law .

But in this case the antennas are not enough. In non-urban areas, triangulation usually limits only radii of several kilometers. That is, the alleged perpetrator could have been next to the tires or five kilometers away. Another solution given by the antennas is to calculate how long it has taken someone to move between two points. The main accused of the fire has an alibi to explain why he was so long stopped between two antennas near the place of the fire: that day, he says, he stopped to sleep "an hour and a half" at a gas station "which is about eight or nine kilometers "of the clearing, according to published EL PAÍS in 2017.

The antennas do not clarify, therefore, if he really was sleeping at the gas station or setting fire to the tires. The next step is Google.

Example of Google Location History. The information includes the most likely means of transport and the addresses where the user stops.
Example of Google Location History. The information includes the most likely means of transport and the addresses where the user stops.

2. What does Google know about our location? Most. Google has a tool called location history. Each user must activate it voluntarily on their mobile phone, but it is requested many times to improve searches, locate photos or navigate better through Maps. If you consent to its activation, Google is an impeccable memory of our activity: where the user has been, how long, how he has arrived there. In the image on the left you can see what this journalist did in Madrid on the day of the Seseña fire in 2016. Google also provides a classification of the most visited places by the user, that is, the house or houses, the place of work … It is a perfect way to defend that someone goes a lot to see their mother or to know which is their favorite bar. It is a relentless geographical biography.

But even if the location history is not activated, Google also knows. According to an investigation by the AP agency in 2018, Google has other methods to know the location of the hundreds of millions of users of its applications: "Even with the location history paused, some apps Google automatically stores the location with its date and time without asking, "says the agency.This process is less precise, but comes standard and its blocking is cumbersome.It is unlikely that the suspect of the fire of Seseña had done so. Google has it or not, only Google knows it.

3. How long does Google respond? It takes a lot. Google could easily help solve the case. Will it arrive on time? Who knows. If it were in the United States, it would be much more likely. In the first half of 2018, Google received 1,098 legal applications from Spain requesting information from 1,642 user accounts. The company responded to 49% of the requirements. In the same period of 2018, the United States authorities turned 20,936 times to Google to request data from 62,142 accounts. The company delivered data 82% of the time.

The legal procedure to request information from Spain is long and requires the intervention of the US justice system

The reason is simple: Google is a US company. The legal procedure to request information from Spain is long and requires the intervention of the justice of your country: "A Government of another country can ask the Government of the United States to help it obtain evidence from United States entities, including companies such as Google If the Government of the United States approves the request, Google will respond, "explains the company's website.

"I have had several criminal cases with requests to Google and I do not remember having used information about their response," says David Maeztu, of the 451.Legal law firm. The most recent case, a lawyer claimed it three times "and even asked the judge to impose a penalty on Google," he adds. But in almost three years nothing came: the ruling is already dictated and Google did not respond. In the case of Seseña, therefore, the term is still within reason.

In the United States the terms are much shorter, even weeks, according to local media reports that report crimes that Google has tried to help resolve. It has to do, according to Maeztu, with the coercive capacity of the authorities.

4. When you choose to collaborate. In addition to the petition on behalf of the US Government, Google may delimit or amend the petition or say that it does not have that information for any reason. Requests to the technology company may be browsing history, activity or content of an account of e-mail, recent searches. Location is just an option.

In serious cases such as terrorism or drug trafficking, Google is usually more predisposed.

In the United States, again, it's different. Help comes even in cases where there are still no suspects. Several media have reported what they call a "geolimited" petition. In house thefts, fires or homicides, the police ask Google for all the traces of the mobile phones that were inside a delimited area with some coordinates. Google responds with anonymized data. If the police discover some criminal pattern or see that there is a number that was previously in another suspicious place – thanks also to data from Google – ask for more details of those phones. If they continue to see that it can be a culprit, they finally ask for the identification of the owner.

In these massive requests, obviously, most of the users that appear are innocent. It is a very tempting option for the police. There are human rights organizations concerned about the excessive use of a basic principle of the relationship between the police and technology companies: "If you do, they will come". If the technology companies have a system to track, the police will eventually knock on your door to ask for it. In Spain, for the moment, accuracy still depends on the antennas.

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