Google Will No Longer Respond to “Geofence” Warrants
Google recently announced changes to its data retention of users location history that makes it impossible for the company to access a user’s data from Google Maps. Previously, Google would use this data to comply with warrants that sought information concerning all active mobile at a specific time and location to investigate possible suspects, called a “geofence.” This type of warrant was used by law enforcement in major cases, such as identifying those who were alleged to take part in the January 6th storming of the capital and the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020. To be clear, this does not mean that all location data remains unavailable to police, as location data about a specific individual will still be turned over by Google with a warrant (because it is particularized and based on probable cause), but the type of dragnet investigations that implicate many people will no longer be made available to law enforcement.
Federal Court Weighs Legality of Geofence Searches
Earlier this year, the Fourth Circuit of Appeals heard the first appeal concerning the legality of geofence searches and if they violate the Fourth Amendment in United States v. Chatrie. As the ACLU wrote in their amicus brief to the court, the concern is that such warrants give police information about many individuals without sufficiently tying their devices to any crime and infringing on the privacy of those individuals. Although Google’s new policy may moot the point, police could attempt to obtain similar information from other tech giants. The Fourth Circuit’s anticipated ruling should provide guidance on any limitations, and law enforcement’s reliance on this information as surveillance tools will likely be unconstitutional which could provide significant difficulties in obtaining legally admissible evidence and may hamper future investigations and ultimately prosecutions.