Google Initiates Steps to Halt Geofence Warrants, A Surveillance Issue It Helped Proliferate

Tech giants, notably Google, have historically been sources for law enforcement to access users’ location data. Google is set to change this by enabling users to retain their location data on their devices instead of on Google’s servers. This move aims to put an end to a common surveillance method where police tap into Google’s extensive location data repository to pinpoint potential suspects.

The rising use of “geofence warrants” is attributed to the widespread use of smartphones and companies like Google collecting and storing vast amounts of user location data. These warrants allow police to request information from Google about devices present in a specific area at a given time.

However, geofence warrants have faced criticism for being unconstitutional and excessively broad, often including data of innocent bystanders. The legality of these warrants is still debated, potentially leading to a future Supreme Court challenge.

Google’s recent announcement did not directly address geofence warrants but stated that storing location data on devices gives users more control. This shift requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to access a specific device, rather than requesting data from Google.

Google, a major collector of sensitive location data, has been a primary target for such warrants. The company’s reliance on location data for its advertising revenue, which accounted for 80% of its 2022 earnings ($220 billion), underscores its significance.

The surveillance scope is broader than Google alone. Law enforcement has also requested location data from Microsoft and Yahoo (owner of TechCrunch). The legal cases involving geofence warrants have surged in recent years, including instances like the Minneapolis protests after George Floyd’s death and concerns about tracking people seeking abortion care post-Roe v. Wade.

Despite backing a New York state bill to ban geofence warrants, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have disclosed little about the number of warrants they receive. Google’s only disclosure in 2021 showed a dramatic increase in geofence warrants from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020.

Google’s move to store location data on devices has been cautiously welcomed, with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation seeing it as a partial victory. However, concerns remain about other types of data requests, such as “reverse keyword” warrants, which Google has yet to address.

Geofence warrants might not disappear immediately, as Google still holds historical location data accessible to police. The hope is that Google’s new policy will significantly reduce this surveillance method. Apple, in its 2022 transparency report, revealed receiving 13 geofence warrants but provided no data, as it doesn’t access users’ device-stored data.