A screenshot from the search warrant on Life360 data, showing a fire in the City of Barre, Vermont. ... [+] The family tracking app helped police gather evidence on a suspect in the alleged arson.Department of Justice
When Glenn "Chip" Hill downloaded Life360, he probably expected it to help him keep tabs on the location of his children and wife. The 40-year-old probably didn't expect it would be used by police to link him to an arson in the City of Barre, Vermont, last month.
But that's what happened, according to a just-unsealed search warrant found by Forbes, which shows how police can use data from Android and iPhone family-tracking apps to trace suspects. Forbes believes it's the first known case of such an app being used by police to trace a suspect.
When family monitoring becomes police surveillance
San Francisco-based Life360 is one of many family tracking applications on the market, which promise to let parents know where their kin are at all times with real-time location tracking. With nearly 30 million active users, more than 50 million Android installs Life360 is one of, if not the biggest, in the fledgling industry. The company, which went public on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2019, is currently worth roughly $325 million.
Given Life360 effectively turns a smartphone into a mini surveillance device, akin to a police GPS tracker but for families, cops could find many uses for it.
In the case of Hill, the police were particularly crafty. They learned that one of Hill's sons used Life360 so he could track the movements of his dad and vice versa. The son said he only used the basic, free version, which only provides data for the last two days, but if he upgraded to the premium version for $8.00, "it would populate the history of his and his father's cell phone for the last 30 days," the search warrant revealed. After speaking with his mother (also Hill's wife), investigators convinced the son to upgrade to the premium Life360 and he did so right in front of detective sergeant Todd Ambroz.
As per the warrant application, the data was as specific as they'd suspected: "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."
Hill had previously worked at the factory, investigators said, and was initially a suspect after video surveillance captured footage of his car in the area around the time of the fire. The blaze ended up destroying much of the building and what was inside, with police estimating financial losses at "well over a million dollars," according to the search warrant.
Hill was arrested and charged with arson in late January. The cops aren't just relying on what they saw on the son's phone, though. They demanded additional data from Life360, including content of communications through the app's chat feature and "all precision location coordinate information, movement activity, driver behavior monitoring and tracking, and specific times the cell phone was moving and stationary." The police suspected the fire started in a car before it spread to the building. According to an executed warrant file, Life360 provided the information the police sought. (Life360 hadn't responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.)
Though the Life360 data might have been his undoing, according to a local news outlet, Hill has pleaded not guilty.
Selling your surveillance data
Police in America are regularly turning to tech companies to demand data on users that could aid their investigations despite warnings from privacy advocates and civil liberties groups over the privacy implications. Last week, Forbes discovered another Californian tech firm - DrChrono - was providing a large number of medical records to police.
The company discloses that one of those third parties is Arity, âan insights technology companyâ that can use the data to âprovide and service insurance products, including using personal data to perform profiling activities and to provide you with relevant and personalized advertising.â That information includes not just geolocation data but also âdriving eventâ details. But in at least one place, the state of California, residents can now legally demand Life360 stop selling their data, thanks to the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
If you live anywhere else, there are other ways to opt out, though they may not entirely prevent Life360âs data trading practices. For instance, the company says users can turn location services off on their phones, but adds: âWe and our third party partners may continue to approximate your location based on other data.â And, though users can opt out of location sharing for ads by changing settings at life360.com/opt-out, the company adds âLife360 may continue sharing your location data with third party partners for non-advertising purposes.â Life360 also notes that third-party advertisers âmay continue to send you location-based ads based on your previous location or may approximate your location based on other data.â
Whether theyâre helping cops or turning the likes of Life360 into money-making machines, family tracking apps carry all kinds of data thatâs not just used to keep families safe.