U.S. authorities linked a man to a factory arson that destroyed “well over a million” dollars in property last month by convincing his son to give them access to an app that would allow them to view the suspect’s movements, Forbes reported.
Police had already identified Barre, Vermont resident Glenn “Chip” Hill as a suspect after surveillance footage caught his car near the Hard Rock Granite factory, his former employer, when it went up in flames. But according to Forbes, the police found out that both his phone and one belonging to his son had installations of the Life360 app, a family tracking device that lets parents follow their children in realtime and vice versa. In other words, both of their phones were de facto surveillance devices. The only issue was that they were using the free version, which only provides data for the last two days.
Forbes wrote that police obtained a search warrant and approached Hill’s wife and then son asking him to upgrade to the paid version, which costs $US8.00 ($12) and tracked up to 30 days previously, covering the day of the fire. From a warrant application obtained by Forbes:
Within a few seconds, the 30-day history of Glenn Hill’s and [his son’s] locations began to unfold. Det. Sgt. Ambroz looked at the app . . . and observed that on the day of the fire, January 11, 2020, the Life360 app showed Hill located at Hardrock Granite in Barre at the time of the fire, from 2:22PM to 3:31PM.
Police weren’t done there. Documents obtained by Forbes showed they delivered a warrant to Law360 demanding it hand over readouts from the app’s internal chat function as well as “all precision location coordinate information, movement activity, driver behaviour monitoring and tracking, and specific times the mobile phone was moving and stationary.” That information was enough to track Hill’s specific movements at the crime scene, Forbes wrote.
Law360, like another company called Dr Chrono which has provided access to medical histories to police, doesn’t issue transparency reports and it’s unclear how often they provide information to authorities.
One lesson here for aspiring criminals is to… simply not carry a phone when doing crimes. Phones leak data not just from apps, but logged-in websites and networks they connect to. Companies regularly bury ways to prevent this kind of information from being collected, and police regularly use location data as a sort of dragnet to identify suspects or build evidence on them.
Carriers themselves collect rough location data based on communications with cell phone towers. As for people who didn’t allegedly burn down their former employers, it’s a reminder that location data can still be used to track you in all sorts of nefarious ways, and also that apps that track your loved ones are weird and bad.