Access to Google searches, cell technology helped crack bombing case


Google said it cooperated with police according to a policy that requires court orders to access private data.

Courts often grapple with access to the wealth of private information online and in electronic devices.

Investigators have yet to reveal many of the details that allowed them to home in on Austin bombing suspect Mark Conditt, but one important development came by accessing the man’s Google search history.

Authorities obtained a search warrant to view the suspect’s digital history, revealing suspicious searches that included addresses in the Austin area, an investigator told the American-Statesman. The relevance of the addresses has not yet been disclosed.

In addition, cell tower records placed Conditt at or near bombing sites, Gov. Greg Abbott said, and officers said that once the suspect was identified, Conditt’s location was discovered by tracking his cellphone — showing the importance of technology in cracking fast-moving criminal cases.

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Tracking a suspect’s digital footprint is routine in criminal investigations, and Google — a massive internet-related services company — is often a required stop for investigators. In the first six months of 2017, Google received 48,941 search warrants and similar data requests, up 8 percent from the same period in 2016 and more than triple the requests received in the first half of 2010, company records show.

The searches can yield extensive results, gathering information on internet search history, emails, downloaded photos, YouTube and Google account information and a list of websites that had been visited, with time stamps, from individual computers. Private content stored in a Google account also can be available to law enforcement.

Google declined to discuss the Austin bombing case in detail, saying in an emailed statement that “we provided information in accordance with our long-established process for engaging with law enforcement.”

The Stored Communications Act of 1986 regulates how companies can be compelled to disclose private information, and Google says it does not release such information without a search warrant, which is reviewed by a judge to determine if there is probable cause for a search, a subpoena or some other type of court order as required by the 1986 law.

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Congress intended the law to address growing privacy concerns in the face of rapidly developing technology, said University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney.

“When you share data or information with a third party like a bank or Google, the law of the land has long been that you no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy that triggers Fourth Amendment protection” against improper search and seizure, Chesney said.

Access to a person’s internet history and electronic devices can reveal such a wealth of personal information that the courts frequently struggle with privacy issues in the digital age, and one important case at the U.S. Supreme Court could clarify access to information held by a third party. In that case, Timothy Carpenter is challenging his conviction and 116-year prison sentence for armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio that were based in part on records obtained without a warrant. Those records showed his cellphone had connected to cell towers near the robberies. A ruling is expected by late June or early July.

The courts are becoming more sensitive to the vast amount of personal information available online or in devices, Chesney said.

“This information is a goldmine for investigators, and we’re living in a time where we’re figuring out how to balance those interests, even as the technology rapidly evolves,” he said.

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