Google Takes Action to Eliminate the Use of Geofence Warrants, A Key Surveillance Issue it Helped to Create

Even the courts cannot agree on whether geofence warrants are legal, likely setting up an eventual challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court. While Google is not the only company subject to geofence warrants, Google has been far the biggest collector of sensitive location data, and the first to be tapped for it. Although the companies have said little about how many geofence warrants they receive, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo last year backed a New York state bill that would have banned the use of geofence warrants across the state. The data showed Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, then 8,396 geofence warrants in 2019, and 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020 — or about one-quarter of all the legal demands that Google received. But there is hope that Google shutting the door on geofence warrants — at least going forward — could significantly curtail this surveillance loophole.

Google will soon change the way it handles users’ location data, a move that will have a big impact on police and law enforcement.

By storing this sensitive information on their devices instead of their servers, Google will effectively put an end to a controversial surveillance practice known as “geofence warrants.” These warrants have become increasingly common, with the rise of smartphones and data-driven companies like Google that collect and store vast amounts of location data.

Geofence warrants, also called reverse-location warrants, allow police to request information from Google on which devices were in a particular geographic area at a specific time. This has led to concerns about privacy and the constitutionality of these warrants, as innocent people’s information can also be included in these requests.

The legality of geofence warrants is still up for debate, and it is likely that the issue will eventually be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Google’s recent announcement did not mention these warrants specifically. Instead, it focused on giving users more control over their data. In reality, this change will require police to obtain a search warrant for a specific device instead of simply requesting information from Google.

While Google is not the only company that receives geofence warrants, it is the largest collector of location data and the first to be targeted for this type of surveillance. The news of Google’s decision comes after it was revealed in 2019 that police had been requesting users’ location data from the company for years.

Google, a company that heavily relies on location data for its advertising business, disclosed that in 2022, 80% of its annual revenues, which amounted to around $220 billion, came from this source. But this surveillance technique is not limited to Google. Other companies, like Microsoft and Yahoo (which owns TechCrunch), have also received geofence warrants, though they have not disclosed how many.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in geofence warrants being used in legal cases. For instance, police in Minneapolis obtained geofence warrants to identify individuals who had attended protests following the killing of George Floyd. The overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 also raised concerns that geofence warrants could be used to identify individuals seeking abortion care in states where it is limited or illegal. As a result, lawmakers urged Google to stop collecting location data to protect the privacy of those seeking abortions.

Although the exact number of geofence warrants received by companies is not known, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have all backed a bill in New York that would ban the use of geofence warrants across the state. However, the bill failed to become law.

Google has not revealed how many geofence warrants it has received in recent years. In its only disclosure of this data, Google reported receiving 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019, and 11,554 in 2020, which accounted for one-quarter of all legal requests received by the company. However, it is not known how often Google pushes back against these requests for user data.

The announcement that Google will be moving users’ location data to their devices has been met with cautious approval. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has challenged the constitutionality of geofence warrants, stated that for now, this can be seen as a win. However, the group also noted that there are other ways for Google to still provide sensitive personal data to law enforcement, such as through “reverse keyword” warrants, which identify Google accounts that searched for a specific keyword at a particular time. It is not clear if Google plans to address this issue and prevent these warrants from being served.

While geofence warrants will not disappear overnight, this change by Google could significantly reduce their use. Although Google will still hold a vast amount of historical location data that police can access, it is hopeful that this decision will close the door on this surveillance loophole, at least in the future. Additionally, other tech companies, like Apple, have taken steps to protect user privacy by stating that they do not have any data to provide in response to geofence requests, as the data is stored on users’ devices and they cannot access it.

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Kira Kim

Kira Kim is a science journalist with a background in biology and a passion for environmental issues. She is known for her clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to bring complex scientific concepts to life for a general audience.

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