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US cops served over 20,000 ‘invasive’ geofence warrants targeting users by location data in last 3 years, Google report shows

US cops served over 20,000 ‘invasive’ geofence warrants targeting users by location data in last 3 years, Google report shows
Google has revealed that over a quarter of all data request warrants it gets from US authorities involve identifying people by location history. These orders, which pinpoint devices near a crime scene, have been called “invasive.”

The so-called ‘geofence warrants’ allow law enforcement agencies to specify area and timeframe and have the tech giant gather information, including names and other details, about persons of interest in that window – from location information recorded by apps and services like Google Maps.

As part of its latest transparency report, the tech giant on Thursday revealed that it received more than 20,000 geofence warrants in the US between 2018 and 2020. It was the first time Google disclosed the volume of these controversial requests, having resisted demands to do so in the past.

Noting that these warrants are only “one subcategory” of the search warrant requests the company gets, Google noted it had “seen a rise” in the number of warrants ordering it to identify users by location info since 2018. That year, it received 982 geofence warrants, and the figure spiked to 11,554 in 2020.

As well, the vast majority of such warrants – to the tune of nearly 96% – are obtained by local and state law enforcement bodies, while federal agencies account for the remainder. Authorities in California made the most information requests between the years specified in the report.

Also known as ‘reverse-location’ warrants, geofence orders make use of the vast amounts of location data Google collects as part of its advertising business in order to send targeted ads to users based on geographic data.

In 2019, it emerged that a Google database called Sensorvault stored location data harvested from “at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide” that run on Android OS, use Google apps, or even ran a Google search. Law enforcement has accessed this data in the past.

In 2018, the Associated Press reported that Google could still collect people’s locations even when they have “paused” location tracking or opted out of recording “time-stamped location data” in their device settings or on Google services like Maps and Photos.

A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company had “developed a process specifically for these requests that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed.”

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In its report, Google noted that it “carefully [reviews]” each request to ensure it “satisfies applicable laws” and “[notifies] users when their identifying information is disclosed” unless “expressly prohibited by law or a court order.”

However, digital privacy groups have long argued that geofence warrants are unconstitutional because they indiscriminately reveal data on every smart device user in the requested geographic area and time period. Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) termed them “anathema” to the US Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable search and seizure” for this reason.

In recent years, some US judges and states have pushed back against issuing court orders for these warrants, which a Kansas court judge cautioned earlier this year could easily “cross the threshold into unconstitutionality” if “cast too broadly” when quashing one such request from authorities.

Last year, New York proposed a bill that would ban geofence warrants in the state. Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, helped introduce the bill.

Noting that the “number of geofence warrants should be zero,” Cahn said in a statement that “Geofence warrants are unconstitutionally broad and invasive, and we look forward to the day they are outlawed completely.”

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