The police department in Raleigh, North Carolina is obtaining warrants meant to compel Google to disclose personal data pulled from all applicable devices whose geolocation data pins them at or near the scene of a crime within a certain time frame. The tactic is being used in the investigations into two separate shootings in the area. Essentially, the investigators have put up an imaginary threshold around the crime scenes and are asking for data on every smartphone that goes into that area during likely time frames for the suspect to be there, with the obvious goal being to obtain data on the suspect that will help find them. In order to avoid alerting the suspect, the warrants come with orders for Google not to alert affected users that their data has been pulled and handed over to law enforcement officials. The breaking of this news is therefore a double-edged sword; if the perpetrators of these crimes are indeed reading mobile news sites, they will find out that their smart device of choice could betray them. On the other side of the coin, the innocent general public is now aware that at least one police department in the United States is using this tactic and may have their data in hand, and the tactic may well be used by other departments elsewhere.
The move has some obvious privacy implications, which the Raleigh Police Department says that it has indeed considered. The Department says that the tactic does not violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure because it casts its net based on proximity to a crime scene in such a way that the suspect is almost certainly ensnared, causing cold logic to be used as probable cause. The tactic is a seemingly natural evolution of current practices, which often include using location information from smartphones and other devices to track suspects or figure out where they were. Privacy advocates and attorneys have voiced concerns over this tactic and the precedent that it could set.
Google, for its part, has not spoken out on this particular issue as of this writing. As the issue enters popular media, it's quite probable that the company will release some sort of statement on this practice. The clause in the warrants that keeps Google from alerting affected users may have some bearing on the company's handling of the matter, but as with any other issue where tech, government, and privacy all collide, only time will tell what will happen with this case and how similar cases will be handled going forward.