The long arm of the Google

February 20, 2013

Is Google becoming a key arm of the law-enforcement complex? It certainly seems to be so with respect to art thefts. I first came across this idea back in November, when Bloomberg Markets profiled Jeff Gundlach, who was hit by art thieves in September:

The cerebral Gundlach also gave investigators a tip for solving the crime. He says that while he was at home in his family room, it dawned on him that thieves would do a Google search using his grandmother’s name to find out more about the paintings and how much they might be worth.

Gundlach told the authorities that they should check the Internet to see who might have googled the name Helen Fuchs. He says exactly two such searches were executed: one by him and one by the thieves.

Now, another man has been arrested for art theft, and was found in much the same way:

In their investigation into the art theft, [officials] found that Mr. Istavrioglou had searched the Internet for reports about the robbery after it took place but before the story became news.

Law enforcement officials, it seems, have pretty easy and routine access to Google’s search-history database, and this is surely only the beginning when it comes to sifting through huge amounts of data to find evidence of crimes. The SEC, for one, has had a large data-mining team in place for a good five years now, going through enormous quantities of data to look for signs of suspicious activity.

Even journalists are getting in on the act of using data to uncover criminal activity. The Sun Sentinel, in Florida, managed to obtain a year’s worth of SunPass toll records for cop cars. That meant that they had data on the amount of time it took cops to drive from one toll plaza to the next. All they needed to do then was measure those distances, divide the distances by the time taken to drive that length of road, and come up with an average speed, for cops who were often just commuting to or from their houses, out of their jurisdiction. The result? The Sun Sentinel found “almost 800 cops from a dozen agencies driving 90 to 130 mph on our highways” — in a state where speeding cops have caused at least 320 crashes and 19 deaths since 2004.

Part of the reason why it has taken so long to bring Libor prosecutions is that going through millions of email and IM records, looking for smoking guns, is still a laborious and time-consuming process. But as data mining techniques continue to evolve, and as databases become increasingly unified and tractable, and our lives are lived almost entirely online, it’s going to be harder and harder for criminals not to leave a discoverable data trail — especially opportunistic criminals, who break the law when they’re given a chance, as opposed to more considered criminals, who spend a lot of time plotting a crime before committing it.

It stands to reason, given advances in computer power and given the size of the networks that we all involve ourselves in every day, that the kind of data crunching that used to be solely the domain of places like the NSA and GCHQ is now going to be available to local police forces and even ordinary citizens, including journalists. The privacy implications are profound, of course: millions of innocent people are going to have their personal data combed on a real-time basis, every day. But that seems to be inevitable, insofar as it isn’t already a reality.


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