You might not have heard of geofence warrants, but you might have been targeted by one, albeit likely in a collateral way. Geofence warrants are information inquiries where authorities pick a date, time, and location and request data on all the cell phones that communicated with the cell tower surrounding an area in a given time frame.
Now, Google has released a new report showing that such requests have been increasing dramatically in the past few years. The practice started in 2016 and requests for them have since grown tenfold in some states.
In California, 1,909 requests were made in 2020 compared to 209 in 2018, in Florida, 81 were made in 2018 compared to 800 in 2020, and in Ohio, 7 were made in 2018 compared to 400 last year. Across the U.S., these requests rose from 941 in 2018 to 11,033 in 2020.
And it's not just Google that has been issued these requests. Apple, Uber, and even Snapchat have all had the same types of details requested from law enforcement agencies.
Regarding the practice, Google spokesperson Alex Krasov said in a statement to TechCrunch: “We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We developed a process specifically for these requests that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed.”
We also reached out to Google for comment but have not received a reply as of publishing this article.
Jake Laperruque, senior policy counsel for the Constitution Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight told WIRED that with these kinds of reports, there is always collateral damage. He suggests that, at the bare minimum, law enforcement should be forced to minimize search areas and delete any data they receive as quickly as possible.
“Why is this size of area necessary? Why this time? Why wouldn't a more narrow setting work? Why wouldn't just one individual’s phone work?” he tells WIRED. “It should be a last resort, because it’s so invasive.”
In the meantime, civil liberties groups and privacy advocates have called for an outright ban of the technique. Will this be enough to put an end to the dangerous and violating practice? Or will the practice be deemed a necessary evil?