The company ends geofencing warrants, a surveillance issue it largely created
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The company ends geofencing warrants, a surveillance issue it largely created

Location data hoarded by tech giants has long been used by law enforcement

Google plans to let users store location data on devices, ending law enforcement’s easy access. Geofence warrants face scrutiny; Google’s move aims to enhance user data control.

Google is planning to let users keep their location data on their own devices instead of storing it on Google’s servers. This change will stop a practice where law enforcement could access Google’s extensive location data to identify potential criminals.

In recent years, the use of “geofence warrants” has surged, largely due to the widespread use of smartphones and data-hungry companies like Google collecting and storing extensive location data. Geofence warrants allow police to request information from Google about users’ devices in a specific geographic area at a particular time.

Critics argue that geofence warrants are unconstitutional and overly broad because they often include data from innocent individuals who happened to be nearby when a crime occurred. The legal community is divided on the legality of these warrants, setting the stage for potential challenges in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Google’s recent announcement about allowing users to store their location data on their devices instead of on Google’s servers does not explicitly address geofence warrants. However, it implies that police will now need a search warrant to access specific devices rather than obtaining data directly from Google.

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While Google is not the only company facing geofence warrants, it has been a major collector of sensitive location data and the first to be targeted for such requests. The revelation of law enforcement tapping into Google’s location data emerged in 2019. Google heavily relies on user location data for its advertising business, generating about 80% of its annual revenues in 2022.

Geofence warrants have been involved in various legal cases, such as identifying protesters in Minneapolis and raising concerns about tracking individuals seeking abortion care in states with restrictive laws. The number of geofence demands has risen significantly in recent years.

Although Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have not disclosed the exact number of geofence warrants they receive, they supported a failed New York state bill aiming to ban the use of such warrants. Google published limited data on geofence warrants, showing a substantial increase over the years.

The recent move by Google to shift users’ location data to their devices has been cautiously praised by privacy advocates. However, concerns remain about other methods, like “reverse keyword” warrants, which allow law enforcement to identify Google accounts based on specific search queries.

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While geofence warrants may not disappear immediately, Google’s decision could potentially limit this surveillance practice. The retention of historical location data and the broader legal landscape for tech companies still pose challenges to privacy. In its 2022 transparency report, Apple noted receiving geofence warrants but emphasized its inability to provide data as it resides solely on users’ devices.

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