In Jan. 2020, Zachary McCoy of Gainesville, Florida became a suspect of the city's police department. He received an email from Google alerting him that the police department was requesting his online data and that he had seven days to go to court and block the data's release.
McCoy later found out that he was being investigated for a burglary. His location data showed that he passed by the targeted home during a bike ride. The police obtained his location data through what is called a geofence warrant.
Geofence warrants or "reverse location" warrants as they are also known, identify "people of interest" who were near a geographic area at a certain time. Law enforcement agencies obtain this information by way of a court order demanding that Google turn over some of the vast amounts of location data in its servers. The big tech corporation keeps all this location data for its advertising details.
McCoy is just one of potentially thousands of innocent Americans who have been targeted by law enforcement agencies. In August, Google revealed for the first time that it received 11,554 warrants for geofence locations from law enforcement agencies in 2020.
In 2019, Google only received 8,396 warrants. In 2018, the company received less than a thousand. (Related: Thanks to Google, you are now "guilty" merely for being in the geographic area of a crime.)
A single geofence request could net law enforcement agencies data from hundreds or even thousands of people who happened to be in an area where a crime was committed. They could be people who live in the area, or people like McCoy who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
"As long as the data exists, all it takes is a creative law enforcement officer to say, 'Hey, we can get a warrant or we can send a subpoena for this particular subset of the data that's already being harvested,'" said Caleb Kenyon, McCoy's defense attorney.
Kenyon and many other lawyers and privacy experts believe geofence warrants are far too broad, and that they should be made illegal under the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"Geofence warrants are unconstitutionally broad and invasive, and we look forward to the day they are outlawed completely," said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a pro-privacy nongovernment organization.
"Let's be clear, the number of geofence warrants should be zero," Cahn added.
Privacy advocates believe search warrants should be targeted and seek information about people who law enforcement agencies have probable cause to believe have committed certain crimes. Geofence warrants do not do this, they only give law enforcement a list of people to be investigated.
When reached for a statement, a spokesperson from Google claimed that it supports the privacy rights of its users. Yet it continues to give away the data of thousands of people.
"We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement," said spokesperson Alex Krasov in a statement. "We developed a process specifically for [geofencing warrants] that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed."
Even if Google was being upfront with its statement, Cahn believes geofence warrants still set a worrying president. Many other smaller tech companies hold very personal data from their users, and these companies may not have the same resources as tech giants like Google to withstand sweeping warrants from law enforcement agencies.
"You could subpoena period tracker apps to provide any users who apparently became pregnant during a given time period, for example," said Cahn.
"This information is flowing to so many different companies and vendors, even if you get one company trying to protect your location data you have so many more points of vulnerability in the commercial market than a decade ago," he added. "All it takes is one company to give up that information without a fight or more often than not sell it."
There is some legislation in the works that would create safeguards so that law enforcement agencies would be unable to get hold of vast swaths of sensitive location data through geofence warrants. But these proposed laws are only on the local or state level, and there is currently no publicly known congressional attempt to rein in the ability of law enforcement to get a hold of private information.
For big tech companies, the only way they will no longer provide law enforcement agencies with sensitive data is if they stopped collecting it. Unfortunately, this kind of data is very important for their revenue streams because they regularly sell user data to advertisers.
"It would be technically impossible to have this data available to advertisers in a way that police couldn't buy it, subpoena it or take it with a warrant," said Cahn.
Learn more about the different ways law enforcement agencies and tech companies cooperate to erode people's privacy by reading the latest articles at PrivacyWatch.news.