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covid free office

BY Shadine Taufik

Technology

Geofence Warrants: A Necessary Invasion of Privacy?

Repurposed location data has become one of the fastest-growing law enforcement tools in the US, however questions of privacy and inaccuracy have brought about public criticism.

AUGUST 26  2021

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Geofence warrants have become increasingly common in policing in the US. These ‘reverse-location’ warrants are search warrants that permit law enforcement to gain access to a database containing the information for all active mobile devices within a pre-mapped, geofenced area. Allowing crime scenes and times to be plotted out, this technology enables accurate identification of possible suspects based upon their Location History information, showing those who have been at the location within a certain timeframe.

Google has become the centre of this process – with its wide reach and extensive archive of locational data, collected for advertising purposes, courts can request the tech conglomerate to divulge their data.

When supplied with a warrant, Google provides anonymised information detailing the devices within the area at a specified timeframe. Once relevant devices are specified, more information is given by Google, such as the user’s name and email.

In the digital age of the quantified, tracked self, questions of autonomy and privacy arise – are such warrants invasive and unethical, or are they necessary in protecting public interests?

The worrying upsurge in requests

Google recently released a transparency report detailing the rise of geofence warrant requests in the United States throughout the years of 2018-2020. Rising from 982 geofence warrants in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020, it is apparent that authorities have further realised the benefits of such technology, and have become more reliant on reverse-location warrants as a legitimate way of criminal identification.

It was revealed that Google keeps its users’ Location History in a database called SensorVault, containing information that is taken from hundreds of millions of phones worldwide. This includes Android devices and Google applications such as Maps, as well as the search engine, when location data is switched on. Additionally, it was reported that even when this was paused, and the applications weren’t opened, Google continued to collect data.

 

A global threat to freedom?

Although geofencing may be a useful tool for policing, it can be argued that it is a violation of privacy, and even unconstitutional. The right to protest is a basic human right, and this may make it more dangerous for activists to continue fighting for their freedoms. Several cases have wrongfully convicted innocents.

During the protests following the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis police utilised a geofence warrant to identify possible suspects that were accused of inciting violent behaviour. Innocent bystanders were asked for their location and targeted as suspects, one of which was a young man simply filming the events unfolding.

In another case, a Florida man biking past a crime scene became a suspect in a burglary due to a geofence warrant and was only able to prove his innocence through his health tracking app.

A 23-year-old man was arrested and jailed for six days in 2018 after being suspected of murder – a fact that was ‘one hundred percent, no doubt’ backed by data evidence that his phone was at the scene of the crime, garnered by a Google geofence warrant. It turned out that he merely lent his phone to the perpetrator, and the phone still contained his Google account details. Though helpful, the multiple possibilities involved makes geofencing a complex policing technique.

 

Criticisms and pushback

Though on the surface they may seem to be a logical and data-driven manner of criminal mapping, geofence warrants have been proven to be fairly ineffective in actually identifying perpetrators. Many Google geofence warrants do not lead to arrests, as the company has a slow response time of up to six months, due to the high volume of data stored in SensorVault.

Geofence warrants have been perceived as unconstitutional, and an obvious violation of the fourth amendment – which protects US citizens from unreasonable searches by the government. With this criticism, many organisations have taken a united stand against geofence warrants. This initiative, led by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, is calling upon Google for increased transparency, aiming to give notice to affected users and ensure increased user control over what data is shared. In a statement published to Protocol, executive director of the project Albert Fox Cahn said that ‘after seeing the scope of the abuse in that case and researching the practice more broadly, it was clear to us it was necessary to outlaw this type of search.’

Additionally, a 2020 New York bill introduced by state Senator Zellnor Myrue and Assemblyman Dan Quart prohibits the use of geofence warrants, the first of which to do so. Other tech companies, such as Uber, Lyft, Snapchat, and Apple have previously been approached for location data requests but they were unsuccessful. Facebook has also publicly denounced the use of geofence warrants, with a spokesperson outwardly supporting the bill.

 

Conclusion

Geofence warrants are amongst the many new ways policing has changed in the 21st century, and revealed new ways in which data may be used. Whether or not you agree that such repurposing is unethical, it is clear that government and police surveillance has become an even greater reality. With cases such as the Met’s use of facial recognition technology and legal prediction AI, tech has become an increasingly important tool in policing.

Geofencing is an undoubtedly helpful tool that can reveal an additional, quantitative perspective that was previously hidden. However, as technology is unable to identify the motives of individuals, human intervention is still needed in order to discern suspects from innocents. Due to this, increased measures and regulations must be taken in order to ensure the rights of individuals are protected, and potentially harmful tools are utilised correctly.

 

About the Author: Shadine Taufik

Shadine Taufik is a contributing Features writer with expertise in digital sociology and culture, philosophy of technology, and computational creativity.

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