'To Live and Die in LA' shows how much Google knows about you

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In episode five, season one of the podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig navigates the strip malls and parks of Baltimore, attempting to fulfill a challenge set down by Adnan Syed — the convicted murderer whose case she’s investigating. Over a prison phone, Syed tells Koenig the state’s timeline of the murder is impossible, so she gathers reams of call logs and cell tower records, and pieces together the route he supposedly took the night he killed his girlfriend in 1999. Memories from witnesses have changed over the years, but the data points on the cell tower map tell the same story every time.

Still, it takes a lot of guesswork. Koenig drives between Woodlawn High School, Best Buy and Leakin Park, trying to match the stories of professed witnesses to the pings from Syed’s phone. The Serial map shows 10 cell towers covering a six-mile stretch of Baltimore, and as Koenig drives around the area, she notes the pings don’t match the story told by the state’s lead witness.

Serial cell tower map

It’s not enough to exonerate Syed. His lawyer apparently mentioned the discrepancy, vaguely, in Syed’s initial trial, but she seemed unprepared to discuss the technical details behind cell-tower location tracking. In the end, the ambiguity of a ping, which could stem from a phone miles away from the actual tower, wasn’t enough evidence for the jury. They trusted the witness and convicted Syed.

Serial aired in 2014 and it covered a case from 1999. The podcast To Live and Die in LA, meanwhile, began airing on February 28th, 2019, investigating the 2018 disappearance and murder of an aspiring actress. Its tenth episode, “Blood on the Script,” dropped on May 2nd, and it starts with an experiment in ping-based location tracking. The host, Neil Strauss, drives to an undisclosed location and his partner, a private investigator, contacts the service he uses to find people in real-time.

The result he gets is wildly inaccurate — 21 miles away from Strauss’ actual location, or one hour and 12 minutes in LA traffic. Strauss then reveals he has access to the suspected murderer’s Google account, location history and all. Strauss spends the next two episodes retracing his suspect’s steps on the likely night of the murder and over the following days, minute by minute and mile by mile.

To Live and Die in LA

In the dead of night, the suspected murderer wove a confusing path around a neighborhood he supposedly knew well, before driving down a small back road that led to the river where the victim’s body was eventually discovered. He drove to a Chevron station, and then to a Super8, and finally at 4:04AM, he stopped at a La Quinta Inn. The next day he visited two different car washes, went to his dad’s house, and hit a series of stores in a squalid town off the highway. The Google Location History data is so exact that Strauss can see whether the man got out of his truck at each stop.

Strauss follows the friendly blue line across the map, stopping where his suspect stopped and noting how long he spent in each location. He can see his suspect’s every move, as long as his phone was connected to Google services.

The gap between Serial and To Live and Die in LA is jarring. Koenig had to guess where her mark might have been within a 20-mile radius at any time, making it nearly impossible to corroborate or refute witness statements, while Strauss was able to see his suspect’s precise movements for days on end, complete with timestamps and cute icons.


A snapshot of Google Timeline
Jessica Conditt / Engadget

Google Location History is an investigator’s dream, and law enforcement is definitely taking notice. Federal and regional authorities around the United States have been tapping into Google’s location database since 2016, using “geofence” warrants to request information on every device that entered a specific location at a certain time. The data points are anonymized — at least until authorities have enough of a case to compel Google to share the personal information of likely culprits.

It’s not a perfect system. Geofence warrants have already led to wrongful arrests; after all, Google is tracking a device, not an actual person. If someone takes your phone on a bank heist and law enforcement throws down a geofence warrant, your data is heading into the war room.

Police and federal investigators are using geofence warrants with increasing regularity. In April, The New York Times reported Google received as many as 180 requests from law enforcement a week. And, if you’re interacting with modern society and technology, it’s tricky to avoid Google’s dragnet.

“We feel so privileged to be developing products for billions of users, and with that scale comes a deep sense of responsibility to create things that improve people’s lives,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said during his opening monologue at the I/O conference in April.

Google I/O 2019

Billions of people are tapped into the Google ecosystem, many of them relying on these services daily, or even hourly. While Google’s stated mission puts humanity first, its nature as a public entity means executives can’t value philanthropy over profit. And, of course, Google makes a lot of money through data-driven ad sales. Advertising alone brought in $30.7 billion for Google in the first quarter of 2019 (the company’s overall revenue for the period was $36.3 billion).

More than $10 billion a month is plenty of incentive for Google to collect as much data from its users as possible, consequences be damned. It’s the likely reason Google has locked its data-consent policies behind multi-step processes, or forced its apps onto Android phones, or engaged in abusive advertising practices, or offered ads targeted by hate speech. Futureproofing its data-collection abilities could explain why Google hid a microphone in the Nest Secure. All of these incidents were in service of, or a result of, Google’s vast internal datasets.

Google rolled out Location History in 2009, and since then, the company has been gathering information on Android and iPhone users alike, even when they’ve opted out of tracking. A 2018 investigation by the Associated Press revealed Google apps were storing a user’s time-stamped location data, even when that person turned off Location History. Google admitted to this practice, telling The Verge, “We make sure Location History users know that when they disable the product, we continue to use location to improve the Google experience.”

Google I/O 2019

At this year’s I/O, Google emphasized its commitment to privacy. The company has rolled out a handful of new security features, including the ability to auto-delete activity data and Location History on a rolling basis. It’s unclear how this feature addresses location tracking in the background of Google apps.

In Engadget’s coverage of geofence warrants, associate editor Jon Fingas made the following observation: “Location History’s existence isn’t a secret. It’s been available since 2009, and you have to grant permission before Google starts collecting data. However, people don’t necessarily realize that Google keeps the info for an indefinite period, or that the history is detailed enough to provide a picture of street-by-street movements to investigators.”

In the name of data-driven profit, that’s exactly how Google wants it.

It’s been 10 years since Google flipped the switch on Location History, and this sea of information has carved our current reality, where a podcast journalist can log into a Google account and trace the explicit movements of a stranger accused of murder in California, all from the comfort of his own cell phone. This is just a taste of the influence and insight that Google has over the lives of billions of people; it’s exhilarating and terrifying.

It also makes for a good podcast.

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'The Case Against Adnan Syed' is a gripping revelation

The question of innocence and guilt is bigger than Adnan Syed.
The question of innocence and guilt is bigger than Adnan Syed.
Image: hbo

After the obsessive internet sleuthing that followed Serial Season 1, the prospect of re-examining Adnan Syed’s conviction for the murder of Hae Min Lee sounded exhausting. 

And yet, roughly five years later, The Case Against Adnan Syed, which premieres Sunday night on HBO, delivers shocking new revelations on a story many true-crime fans know better than the back of their hands. Hae was found murdered in her car in 1999, leading to the conviction of her boyfriend Adnan a year later. In 2014, the Serial podcast raised some serious questions about his guilt.

But the four-part series most notable contribution to the saga is how it reckons with so many of the ethical questions that most true-crime media avoids in order to keep feeding our insatiable appetites for more real-life horror. It paints a gut-wrenching portrait of the immeasurable pain a single murder conviction has, rippling through those even only tangentially involved in the trial decades later. 

The past year has seen the release of several other follow ups to true-crime cases that have recently gripped popular culture. Netflix released Making a Murderer Part 2 in October with mixed results. Around the same time, Serial Season 3 returned to its roots, interrogating an entire criminal justice system instead of just one homicide. Even The Ted Bundy Tapes released in January by Netflix reignited discussions over our disturbing attraction to convicted murderers and media coverage that all but erases the lives of victims and their survivors.

Hae and her closest friends, who help us see the monumental loss of her death.

Hae and her closest friends, who help us see the monumental loss of her death.

Image: hbo

Each of these follow ups has, to varying degrees, been pushed to answer for the moral uneasiness brought by murder cases that become cultural phenomenons. How can we justify turning people’s lives and deaths into an IRL game of Clue for amateur detectives on Reddit? What does it mean to give even potentially wrongfully convicted murderers more voice than their alleged victims, or the people who loved them? 

The Case Against Adnan Syed‘s greatest accomplishment is restoring some personhood to the murder victim.

But The Case Against Adnan Syed is the first to sincerely wrestle with these inherent issues. It doesn’t pretend to have answers. But it forces us to sit with the discomfort of it all by subverting the thrills we’ve come to expect from binge-able true-crime stories.

The most major revelations in The Case Against Adnan Syed are given far less weight than the small moments that capture the emotional toll of re-opening wounds. And unlike nearly every other true-crime narrative in existence, it seems pretty disinterested in finding a bad guy to blame.

Counter to what its title suggests, The Case Against Adnan Syed‘s greatest accomplishment is restoring some personhood to murder victim Hae Min Lee.

Part 1 opens with her words. An actor reads Hae’s diary entry as a beautifully animated reenactment of the high school teen writing in her bedroom plays: 

“This book is open to those whose heart is innocent. If you feel any guilt reading this, you should stop. This book is full of my expression. This may make you angry, happy, mad or cry. So do enter at your own risk. Dedicated to those who I love and loved me back. Do love and remember me forever, since I’ll always love you all.”

Animated recreations of Hae’s diary become a visual motif throughout, but unlike during Adnan’s trial and Serial’s debut, the entries aren’t used to debate his guilt or innocence. Rather, they’re the best way to give her a voice, and the audience a visceral sense of who she was and what a monumental loss her death continues to be.

Very few true-crime documentaries bother with the conflicting task of reminding viewers of the human being that should be at the center of our need for answers in a murder trial. Even fewer make viewers actually feel grief over the death of that victim. 

But that’s what it feels like in The Case Against Adnan Syed after it switches focus to the trial following Hae’s death. Her absence is keenly felt, as we watch the consequences of it play out in the lives of the people and communities shattered by it.

Rabia Chaudry is both a personal friend of the Syeds and the attorney arguing the case for his innocence.

Rabia Chaudry is both a personal friend of the Syeds and the attorney arguing the case for his innocence.

Image: hbo

However, it remains unclear how Hae’s family feels about the documentary or its depiction of their daughter. They have refused to take part in any of the media blitz around her murder. Her parents only appear in The Case Against Adnan Syed in the form of an old news clip, as her mother sobs uncontrollably. 

Throughout the Serial craze, the few statements Hae’s family provided begged us to understand how much pain our fascination with her death causes them, pleading for us to let their daughter rest in peace after what they believe to be justice for her murder was served with Adnan’s sentencing. 

And the documentary’s sincere effort and success in painting a vivid picture of Hae raises its own bout of moral questions. Do we have any right to know her this intimately, through access to the innermost thoughts of a teen girl? Can we even trust the picture painted, when her convicted killer has more to say in how she’s portrayed than her own family?

The question of innocence, guilt, bias, justice, and who gets to tell their truth in a murder trial is at the center of The Case Against Adnan Syed.

As Hae’s opening diary entry warns, if we feel any guilt over snooping on her, we should stop now. We can’t know what her wishes would be today, but I know I don’t feel innocent while listening to an actor read the secret thoughts of a dead teen. That discomfort is only exacerbated by how Part 1 sets up Hae and Adnan as a sort of Romeo and Juliet. 

The Case Against Adnan Syed is transparent in its agenda, which is to show that Adnan was wrongfully convicted. It makes that valid argument well, and with due respect to those who will find that conclusion upsetting. 

But its agenda also taints many of its most beautiful achievements. Hae is given a voice. Yet we can’t forget that it’s the voice of a smitten teenager who doesn’t know what’s to come, or that her words will be scrutinized by millions. 

It can often feel as if the documentary takes the liberty of speaking for Hae, like when an animated reenactment draws hearts around Adnan’s yearbook picture. Imagine just how disturbing that would be to a family member who believes this man violently murdered her.

The community around the Hae Min Lee case never seems to have recovered fully.

The community around the Hae Min Lee case never seems to have recovered fully.

Image: hbo

The question of innocence, guilt, bias, justice, and who gets to tell their truth in a murder trial is at the center of The Case Against Adnan Syed. It makes us ask ourselves what we even want out of all this.

Yes, we want justice for Hae’s murder. Yes, we want Adnan freed if he is innocent. At least, we tell ourselves that’s what we want.

Having only been given access to three parts of the four-part series, I don’t know which of the many themes the documentary closes on. But I hope the final part turns the camera back on us more, and the phenomenons we make out of these losses of life, and the kind of justice our insatiable need to find the culprit leads to. 

In the case against Adnan Syed, we must hold ourselves just as accountable as the criminal justice system. Because both seem to believe murder cases are beholden to satisfying answers rather than to people’s lives.

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Adnan Syed of ‘Serial’ denied new trial days before HBO series on the case premieres

Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was the focus of the popular podcast
Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction was the focus of the popular podcast “Serial,” has been denied a retrial.
Image: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO

Adnan Syed, the focus of the first season of the hit podcast Serial, has been denied a retrial.

The highest court in Maryland, the Court of Appeals, overturned a ruling to grant Syed a new trial and vacate his previous murder conviction.

Since 2000, Syed has been in prison serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Syed has maintained his innocence throughout the years behind bars.

His argument rested on the failure of Syed’s defense lawyer at the time to call a witness who saw Syed in the library on the afternoon of Lee’s disappearance. The court ruled that while his lawyer was “deficient” in not having this witness testify, Syed was not “prejudiced” by the “deficient performance” because there was other evidence that proved him guilty.

The Court of Appeals also rejected a claim that Syed’s defense lawyer failed to raise challenges against prosecutors use of cellphone location data in 2000. The court denied this claim because it was raised late into the process.

Syed’s case was thrust into the national spotlight In 2014, thanks to a podcast called Serial, hosted by former “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig.

The following year, due in part to the podcast’s popularity, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals accepted Syed’s application for an appeal, which would grant Syed’s legal counsel the chance to make arguments for a new trial.

In 2016, Adnan Syed found himself in court once again, this time making the case for his retrial. Later that year, a Baltimore judge granted him a new trial. The decision was upheld in 2018.

However, that decision has now been reversed.

Syed’s lead defense lawyer, C. Justin Brown, released the following statement after the court’s ruling:

We are devastated by the Court of Appeals’ decision but we will not give up on Adnan Syed. 

Unfortunately we live in a binary criminal justice system in which you either win or you lose. Today we lost by a 4-3 vote. 

Our criminal justice system is desperately in need of reform. The obstacles to getting a new trial are simply too great. 

There was a credible alibi witness who was with Adnan at the precise time of the murder and now the Court of Appeals has said that witness would not have affected the outcome of the proceeding. We think just the opposite is true. From the perspective of the defendant, there is no stronger evidence than an alibi witness.

The ruling comes just days before the premiere of a miniseries looking at the case and Syed’s years-long attempts to win an appeal. The Case Against Adnan Syed airs Sunday, March 10 on HBO.

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Watch the first trailer for HBO's 'The Case Against Adnan Syed'


HBO

Nearly five years after Serial first aired and raised questions about the murder conviction against Adnan Syed, HBO is picking up the story to lay out more details about the crime and conviction. The premium cable company dropped its first trailer for its upcoming documentary The Case Against Adnan Syed, which is set to air later this spring.

The documentary, which has been in production since 2015, will reexamine some of the evidence already laid out by Serial. It will dive into the romantic relationship between Syed and Hae Min Lee, the 18-year-old he is accused of killing, what happened after she was reported missing and how the police investigated the case. The Case Against Adnan Syed will also cover the last half-decade since the first season of Serial, including the Maryland appeals court decision to vacate the conviction against Syed and his upcoming retrial.

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'Serial' Season 3 is coming your way — and it's taking on criminal justice

Image: moth studio/adam maida via npr

Get ready for a podcast to completely take over your life – again. Serial is back Sept. 20 for Season 3, with new episodes every Thursday.

According to a press release from the Serial team, Season 1 was downloaded over 16 million times. The phenomenal popularity of Serial‘s 2014 debut was a key factor in the resurgence and rise of podcast culture. It also led, remarkably, to the revisiting of Adnan Syed’s contentious murder conviction (though things are moving slow).

In Season 3, Serial goes right into the nitty-gritty and often uncomfortable flaws of the criminal justice system, specifically in Cleveland. From drug possession to full-on felony, each episode or batch of episodes will focus on a different crime and how it goes through the system.

“Every case Emmanuel [Dzotsi, a reporter] and I followed, there came a point where we thought: No, this can’t be how it works,” says host Sarah Koenig. “And then we were like, Oh! Oh my god. This is how it works! This is how it happens! People who work in the system, or have been through the system, they know this. But millions more people do not. And for the past year I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door, and wave people inside. Because things are happening – shocking things, fascinating things – in plain sight.”

The first two episodes of Serial debut Sept. 20.

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