Investigative report features Elon professor's insights on search warrants targeting Google accounts

Analysis from Jonathan Jones, instructor in communications and director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, was recently featured in a March 15 report by, a Raleigh-based news outlet.

According to a report published on March 15, at least four Raleigh police investigations in the past year have used search warrants to request Google accounts from any mobile devices that veered too close to the scene of a crime. This included the possible arson of a massive downtown fire in March 2017.

Jonathan Jones is an instructor in the School of Communications and the director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.
WRAL reporter Tyler Dukes’ investigation, titled “To find suspects, police quietly turn to Google,” featured comments by Jonathan Jones, an instructor in the School of Communications and the director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.

According to the report, Wake County and Raleigh officials explained that the practice is “a natural evolution of criminal investigative techniques.” Additionally, officials noted that, by seeking search warrants, they’re “carefully balancing civil rights with public safety.”

But defense attorneys and privacy advocates, including Jones, expressed several concerns.

Their apprehensions trace back to how law enforcement utilizes Google’s massive cache of user data, especially without a clear target in mind. This process could potentially affect innocent mobile phone users.

“We are willingly sharing an awful lot of our lives with Google,” said Jones in the article. “But do people understand that in sharing that information with Google, they’re also potentially sharing it with law enforcement?”

A former Durham prosecutor, Jones also expressed concerns after reviewing the warrants highlighted by Dukes’ report. He noted that the evidence in a few cases didn’t indicate the suspect or suspects had a cellphone.

“In those cases, the evidence provided to establish probable cause seems very thin to me,” Jones said in the article. “These amount to fishing expeditions that could potentially snare anyone in the vicinity with a cellphone, whether they were involved in the crime or not.”