Google is best known as a tool to find what you’re looking for on the web, but it can be used in more investigative ways than to look up what tomorrow’s weather will be like, or who had a hit in 1994 with ‘Swamp Thing’.
The search engine, and the variety of services coming under the Google (or more specifically Alphabet) banner, has been used to right wrongs, identify perpetrators and lead to arrests. After all, it’s an enormous resource, and there’s plenty of information on it that could interest anybody who fancies themselves as a digital-era detective.
Here are a couple of examples of criminals being apprehended in ways that might not have been possible had Google been bought out by Yahoo! or AltaVista years ago.
Retail crime cost more than £600m last year, representing a threefold rise in less than a decade. Shoplifting, even when it’s seemingly trivial items, makes a big dent in retailers’ budgets.
Just last week, The Telegraph and several other sources reported on a story of a women who stole £60 worth of items from a Middlesbrough store, and has since been prosecuted as a result of two pieces of misfortune on her part.
The first was that the Google Street View cameras just happened to be driving past the scene of the crime on the afternoon of June 19. The second was that IT worker Peter Darby, once a student in the area, was having a nostalgic look at his former stomping ground using the tool, and happened to see what appeared to be a woman being chased by a store assistant.
Cleveland Police were then able to identify the woman, helped by her distinctive white clothing and Sports Direct bag, as 30-year-old local Tammy McIvor, reported The Telegraph.
Criminals might be getting more digitally savvy, but they aren’t necessarily getting any smarter in general. Many don’t seem to realise that evidence against them doesn’t come much more cast iron than video footage of them committing the crime, so if they film it and broadcast it themselves, they’re giving investigators something pretty solid to work with.
There are several examples of Google-owned YouTube providing a place for foolish lawbreakers to upload their pursuits, only to then realise that they’ve sealed their own fate. As well as this, members of the public will often film their day-to-day lives, particularly with dashboard cameras, and upload anything of interest that they come across.
This summer, a YouTube video of a road rage incident in Colorado helped police to locate a car driver and motorcyclist, who were charged with assault and harassment respectively.
With stories also emerging of police using Google Location History on suspected criminals’ Android phones, and ‘big data’ being used to spot irregular patterns and potential fraud, it shows that although the internet and mobile data have created new crime openings, digital resources could be wrongdoers’ downfall too.