A recent privacy overhaul of Google’s location services could have ripple effects far beyond an individual’s phone use, suggesting that the dominance of data scrubbing by law enforcement may soon be checked.
Announced on Wednesday, the tech giant’s new policy allows users to save their location history (known as Timeline) directly to their devices instead of storing it in the cloud. Google will also shorten the data retention period (three months by default) and allow users to delete data related to specific locations. While location history was already an opt-in feature, the company also made it easier for users to toggle these controls on and off while using Google Maps.
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As Google wrote in its blog, these changes give users “even more control over important personal information,” but also directly limit the efforts of law enforcement officials who have long used Google’s data collection as an investigative tool. Using what are known as geofencing orders (or “reverse location orders”), investigative officials have been able to legally force tech firms (mainly Google) to give up location history data to identify people’s movements in any given area, whether they are suspected or not.
Reverse location warrants have increased in recent years
According to Googlethe company received 11,554 warrants from law enforcement in 2020, up from 982 in 2018. Last year, however, the number skyrocketed, with Google reporting 50,000 subpoenas, warrants and other legal requests in the first half of the year alone. NPR reports.
Privacy watchdogs have warned of these types of surveillance tactics as “unconstitutional,” calling on state governments to ban the practice among their agencies.
“Geo-fencing warrants require a provider—almost always Google—to search through its entire store of user location data to identify everything users or devices located in a geographic area during a time period specified by law enforcement authorities. These warrants violate the Fourth Amendment because they do not target a specific person or device, like a typical digital communications warrant. “The only ‘evidence’ to support a geofencing order is that a crime was committed in a specific area and the perpetrator likely had a cell phone that shared location data with Google,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a press release about Google’s decision.
In 2022, New York again introduced a bill that would prohibit state law enforcement from obtaining residents’ private user data. In 2023, the first geofencing warrant case went to federal court, gaining support from the ACLU and public defender offices across the country. The coalition argued in an amicus brief that police should be limited from using evidence gathered using geofencing warrants. A federal judge in Virginia ruled that the use of the search warrant was unconstitutional.
Bipartisan groups of lawmakers have also spoken out against the potential dangers of allowing these types of dragnet searches by government agencies.
Geofencing orders and similar keyword orders have been at the center of privacy concerns for both protesters and pro-abortionists. In 2022, following the repeal of privacy protections pursuant to Roe v. Wade, privacy groups warned that location data and search history could be used to stalk people traveling to get an abortion. Shortly thereafter, a California lawmaker introduced a bill to address the potential impact of geofencing orders on reproductive health seekers.
Watchdog groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have called attention to the use of geofencing warrants to obtain data from Google on the location of protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and in Minneapolis, Minnesota, following the killing of George Floyd.
Google’s Actions to ‘End Such Dragnet Location Searches’
Those who support the use of geofence warrants believe the pros outweigh the potential dangers, serving as important investigative tools and speeding up the work of law enforcement officials in solving local crimes.
According to a statement made to ForbesGoogle confirmed that the recent overhaul was done not only to empower its users, but also to “explicitly end such dragnet location searches.”
Such searches are just one of many surveillance tactics in the hands of tech giants and law enforcement officials. Recent revelations that both law enforcement and government agencies have the ability to monitor individual push notification data have raised similar privacy fears, and on December 14 Apple quietly updated its enforcement policies, making it harder for investigators to obtain such data.
While investigators can still request a person’s full account data, Google’s new location history policy both addresses privacy concerns and pulls the decision on whether or not to authorize sweeping warrants out of the hands of lawmakers and judges — for now .