Geofence warrants have become more common over the past decade in California and across the country. These warrants seek location data for every person located at or near a crime scene to allow law enforcement officers to track down people who might have witnessed or participated in the events under investigation. A recent decision by Google might effectively end geofence warrants without their constitutionality being addressed.
Understanding geofence warrants
Google has historically collected location data from individual smartphones through GPS. While turning a phone off will make location tracking more difficult since the phone won’t be pinging nearby cell towers, the internet provider will be able to see the location someone was at when they turned the phone back on. Google has tracked and retained the location data of its users for years. Law enforcement officers investigating violent crimes have sought geofence warrants to force technology companies to turn over this data. They then use it to identify people located near the crime scene and develop a list of potential persons of interest.
Google recently announced it was revoking its access to its users’ location data. This means that instead of Google collecting and retaining location data, it will only be stored on each user’s phone. Since the vast majority of geofence warrants have been targeted at Google, this will effectively end a large percentage of geofence warrants. However, smaller tech companies and cellphone providers also collect location data and might be targeted with these warrants.
The use of geofence warrants has raised constitutional privacy concerns. When a geofence warrant is issued, the location data of every person near a crime scene will be collected, including the data of innocent passersby who have no connection to the crime. While Google’s revocation of its access to location data will stop many geofence warrants, the issue of whether they are constitutional still needs to be addressed by the courts.