How to Stop Google From Sharing Your Mobile Data With the Police

Bonnie Aleman Last Updated by Bonnie Aleman on May 26, 2019

Public network vpn
On TV shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, or Longmire, one of the first steps in any investigation is the request for the phone records as the police attempt to catch the criminal.

In June 2018, those procedures changed in real life investigations when the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies could no longer request cell tower records without a warrant. It was hailed as a victory for consumer privacy.

As with many laws and regulations, the result is not more consumer protection, but less.

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, judges across the country began granting warrant requests to law enforcement agencies. Only now, the government wants more than just cell phone tower records, they want access to information about everyone who happened to be in a certain area at a certain time.

Agencies are successfully getting these “geofence” warrants, that are no longer tied to an individual, but a place and time.

In the past, police could only obtain phone records for a specific individual if they were a suspect in a case. Today law enforcement agencies can obtain log information from companies like Google, who track your street-to-street movements and then turn them over to the police.

Agencies can now request a warrant for information on every individual who was in a certain location during a specified period of time. The time restriction can include several hours to several weeks.

Best VPN to protect your smartphone
These warrants have resulted in the investigation, and sometimes the arrest, of innocent people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 2019, Google faces an average of 180 of such warrants each week.

These actions by law enforcement are a major breach of your consumer privacy.

What Records Does Google Maintain?

Beginning in 2009, Google began logging the movement of Android users down to the street. They know your location, even when you are not making a call, sending a text, or even browsing the web. The database, known in Google as Sensor Vault, maintains this information on user activity indefinitely.

While in theory, you must give Google permission to track your movements. However, the use of many apps like Google Maps, GasBuddy, and even your Fitbit, requires you to turn on your location tracker.

The device will then follow your movements through cell towers, Wi-Fi connections, and Bluetooth beacons. Every time your device attempts to connect to a network, sync with a Bluetooth device, or send a message, Google knows your exact location.

Google maps
Google tracks and monitors both your online and physical movements. In the last decade, the company has sold this information to companies for marketing purposes, but now they are turning over this information to the police.

General warrants, called geofence warrants, demand to know the presence of all individuals with smartphones in a given area during a pre-established time.

For example, Google might provide all cell phone users within five miles of a specific address over the course of a two-week timeframe. Police then scour the data looking for a reason to make an arrest.

Why Are Judges Approving These Broad and General Warrants?

The fourth amendment in the constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure. However, the Third-Party Doctrine, states that when you share information with a third party, you have a reduced expectation of privacy.

Since you are “volunteering” to let Google track your location, you have no legal protections under the law.

Courts are using this doctrine, to put innocent people at risk of prosecution, as law enforcement uses the popularity of smartphones to track down all users within a given area of a crime. If you happen to be in the grocery store or restaurant at the time of a robbery in the neighborhood, you could unwittingly become a suspect in the case.

How to Protect Yourself With a VPN

Most smartphone users do not want to forgo the convenience of using apps, which require access to your location. However, you can still protect your privacy by installing and using a VPN on your smartphone.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN is a software that reroutes your internet connection from your ISP server to a remote server that they operate.

Once you’re connected to the remote servers, your ISP will instantly lose track of what you’re doing and when you’re online. Instead, all of that data will remain on the VPN servers.

While Google will still have your location data, unless you turn off all location-based app, the police won’t have any additional data with which make you a suspect or help with their investigation.

It’s important that you sign up with a VPN that has a real “no-log policy” which means that they don’t store any identifiable information on their servers.

Choosing the Right VPN to Protect Against Law Enforcement Prying

Nearly all VPN services claim to have policies against keeping logs, which can track your browsing activity and, in some cases, identify the user IP address. Since one of the primary reasons to use a VPN is online privacy, logging policies are a big deal.

With the government and law enforcement agencies, increasing their reach and eroding consumer privacy, relying on the strength of anti-logging policies is also essential when deciding which VPN to choose.

Not all VPNs approach logs the same way.

What Types of Information Can VPNs Track?

VPN providers can maintain three different types of logs: Connection logs, address logs, and traffic logs.

  • Connection Logs
    monitor diagnostics and usage. These logs track things like the bandwidth consumed and the amount of time you spend online. Companies that restrict bandwidth, monitor the number of simultaneous connections, often maintain connection logs.
  • Address Logs
    connect an individual IP address to a time stamp, which could then connect your browsing activity to your smartphone. Companies use IP address logs to sell consumer browsing information to third parties, who can promote their products directly to you based on your online history. Free VPN services frequently keep address logs.
  • Traffic Logs
    monitor the websites you visit, file downloads, messages sent, and other personal information. The use of traffic logs could identify your IP address and you as an individual including your location and activity.

Other Factors to Consider When Evaluating VPN Log Policies

In addition to keeping logs, there are two other important factors to consider.

First, is how long the company keeps the information. For example, some companies maintain logs to evaluate server issues or identify areas of improvement.

The service could delete the data at disconnection, protecting your identity. Others might maintain the records for 30 days or longer.

The second concern with logs is whether the information connects directly to your individual IP address.

Any log activity connecting to your IP address puts you at risk of having your privacy compromised in the event of a warrant, subpoena, or other demand by the government or law enforcement.

VPN Privacy Policies

The company’s privacy policy must disclose the logs kept, how long the company maintains the data, and how the service uses the information.

We recommend the following companies which lead the industry in protecting your identity through strict anti-logging policies that do not risk your personal IP address to legal or government entities.

Our Top VPN Picks to Protect Your Identity and Location on Your Smartphone

1NordVPN (Our Top Pick Guarantees a Strict No-Log Policy)

  • Hack Proof Tunnel Encryption
  • Double VPN
  • Military Grade Encryption
  • 30 Day Money Back Guarantee

NordVPN does not maintain traffic, connection, or IP address logs, which includes timestamps, bandwidth usage, and any identifying information connected to your IP address.

The privacy policy reads, “Operating under the jurisdiction of Panama allows us to guarantee our no logs policy. We process only minimal user data – only as much as it is absolutely necessary to maintain our services.

In addition to offering high levels of anonymity through a strict no-log policy, NordVPN also has a large server network of over 5,400 servers worldwide and optimizes server speeds for fast connections.

The service blocks ads and allows you to connect to up to six devices simultaneously.

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  • One-click Activation
  • Hidden IP Address
  • Own DNS on Every Server
  • 256-bit AES Encryption

ExpressVPN does not monitor user activity through logs. While it does maintain connection logs, which include both the date of the connection, the server used, and amount of data transferred, the service deletes this information at disconnection. No logs connect your online activity to your IP address.

In December 2017, the ExpressVPN no log policy was put to the test when the Turkish authorities confiscated an Express VPN server and found no useful data to support the case.

Along with a strict no-log policy, the service also ranks high for maintaining fast servers at optimized speeds to eliminate buffering. The company supports over 3,000 servers in 94 countries, allowing you to connect from anywhere in the world.

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3CyberGhost VPN

CyberGhost VPN
  • Military Grade Encryption
  • DNS IP Leak Protection
  • Auto Kill Switch
  • Ad Blocking

CyberGhost VPN takes your privacy seriously and provides a strong anti-logging policy, which includes the following, “user’s traffic data such as browsing history, traffic destination, data content and search preferences are not monitored, recorded, logged or stored by the Company…we are not storing connection logs, meaning that we don’t have any logs tied to your IP address, connection timestamp or session duration.”

The service provides maximum security with military-grade encryption and fast server speeds so you can browse without buffering. The company maintains over 3,800 servers in 60 countries.

Each account can have up to seven simultaneous connections and new subscribers receive a 45-day money back guarantee.

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Final Thoughts

The increase in smartphone use, combined with the new tracking technologies, can put innocent people at risk of investigation through aggressive law enforcement practices that breach your privacy.

Using a VPN from a service that maintains a strict no log policy is the best way to protect yourself from an unwarranted search and the breach of your personal data.
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Bonnie Aleman
Bonnie Aleman worked in the financial industry for over a decade and learned firsthand the importance of implementing cyber security protocols. As a tech expert, she now enjoys educating others on ways to protect their identity and maintain privacy online.