Google’s New Partnership With Law Enforcement Disquiets Privacy Advocates

What’s concerning most about the system for privacy advocates is that the information, which includes the photos and videos, is shared directly by Google with law enforcement.
By @katierucke |
Cecilia Abadie models her Google Glass as she talks with her attorney outside of traffic court Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in San Diego. When Abadie was pulled over on suspicion of speeding in October, the officer saw she was wearing Google Glass and tacked on a citation usually given to drivers who may be distracted by a video or TV screen. She pleaded not guilty to both charges on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Cecilia Abadie models her Google Glass as she talks with her attorney outside of traffic court Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, in San Diego. When Abadie was pulled over on suspicion of speeding in October, the officer saw she was wearing Google Glass and tacked on a citation usually given to drivers who may be distracted by a video or TV screen. She pleaded not guilty to both charges. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Google may be in bed with U.S. government and law enforcement agencies more than the American public may have realized.

While the tech giant maintains it was unaware of the extent that the National Security Agency was using its cookie technology to gather information about the public, it was recently discovered that the company filed for two patents last year that actually benefit law enforcement.

Known as “Mob Source Phone Video Collaboration” and “Inferring Events Based On Mob Sourced Video,” the patents are for a system that would identify when and where a “mob” event takes place and would send multimedia alerts to those with a vested interest in the event, namely law enforcement and news agencies.

According to the patents, a “mob” event is anything that attracts an “abnormal” amount of attention in the form of photos and videos, which is determined by the system’s monitoring photos and videos for similar time and location stamps.

Though the technology could be used to thwart protests, it would also flag events such as the recent Grammy Awards Show, conferences, concerts and more.

But what’s concerning most about the system for privacy advocates is that the information, which includes the photos and videos, is shared directly by Google with law enforcement.

As Quentyn Kennemer, contributing editor of Phandroid.com wrote, “The fact that ‘law enforcement agencies’ and ‘news organization(s)’ are the first two examples provided by Google themselves is our greatest cause for concern,” since under this system law enforcement would not have to physically obtain an individual’s phone to access information. They would already have a lot of the information they wanted.

Kennemer stressed that especially since privacy and other civil liberty issues have become a greater concern to many following the NSA revelations, the idea that Google would file a patent that has the potential to proactively feed information to law enforcement is a bit unsettling.

“We’ve already seen rudimentary examples of law enforcement using the public’s photos and videos to track down culprits,” he said. “Look no further than the Boston Marathon bombing last year. The FBI used photos and video from attendees’ cell phones to help identify the parties responsible for that unfortunate event. With a system like this, they might not have had to procure the actual phones to get what they needed.”

The specifics of how this new system would work remains unknown, but some tech experts hypothesize that the program would collect data such as time and location of any multimedia recently taken, which would allow the system to identify “mob source” events. Once those events are identified, the information can be shared with third parties.

Some tech experts also say that the announcement of the system will likely be buried in a terms of service document, which means legally, people would be opting-in to participate in this system. However, Kennemer opined that Google will almost certainly have an “easy and obvious” way to opt-out of the feature.

“Google has been scrutinized, chastised and criticized about privacy issues lately,” Kennemer said, “so if this is an area they tread they’ll do so lightly, and we’ll continue sleeping with one eye open. Let’s hope the company that beats the ‘don’t be evil’ drum louder than anyone else stays true to their word.”

 

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