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Google releases geofence warrant stats

Technology for Lawyers

Published: September 24, 2021

Say you’re driving down the street. Any street. Any time. Talking on your phone. Unbeknownst to you, a drug deal is happening three blocks away. Well, you know, an illegal drug, War on Drugs deal.
The police get a warrant for cellphone pings within a radius of the tower the drug deal is using. They serve that warrant on Google and get a list. That list includes all pings from all phones within a small radius of that cell tower. And that warrant includes your phone.
“What?” you say.
That practice is legal. For now. It’s called geofencing, or sometimes “reverse location.” It is used to find “persons of interest” who were a few hundred feet from a crime scene.
Geofenced warrants have been met with constitutional questions. One set, for instance, was used to determine members of a protest crowd in Minneapolis following the George Floyd killing by sending out a warrant for a photographer who was there.
Google stores vast amounts of user information, particularly from Google Maps, in a platform called Sensorvault (first revealed to the public by the New York Times in 2019). It is all subject to one warrant or another, depending on the circumstances.
Now, for the first time, Google has released statistics on how many reverse location warrants it has been served, and civil rights groups are pointing to these statistics as a reason to finally declare geofenced warrants unconstitutional.
First, only 4% of these warrants were generated by federal agencies, which should say something. The rest were generated by local law enforcement.
Google was served a little under 1,000 of these warrants in 2018, and over 11,500 of them in 2020. Google released the stats after a campaign from a number of civil rights groups, who commended the company on releasing them. But those cold stats reveal little about who was the subject of the warrants and how hard Google pushed back on overly broad ones.
Google released a statement saying that they protect the privacy rights of their users while also giving law enforcement what it needed.
The New York state legislature has introduced a bill to outlaw geofencing, and the practice may fall to a defense team at some point.
But for the time being, you know, Big Brother and all that.