Imagine your local law enforcement accesses all your phone data just because you happened to be close to a crime scene but you’re not even a suspect or a witness. In fact, scratch the ‘imagine’ part because this is a true story. This happens as we speak within the US – all thanks to Google’s ‘Geofence Warrants’.
In a new chapter of ‘Google Invades Your Privacy’, the company recently disclosed the number of geofence warrants it received from law enforcement between 2018-2020.
Let’s uncover the twists and turns of this law enforcements’ practice and how you can evade it.
How Google Geofence Warrants Works
A typical law enforcement investigation involves:
- gathering evidence
- interviewing witnesses
- establishing a list of suspects
With geofence warrants, this investigation goes further, putting on a list of potential suspects anyone who happened to be around or lives near the place where a crime or an unlawful deed occurred.
Through a court order, law enforcement requests Google data from people’s phones.
Some of these warrants were issued amid rallies and protests, like Black Lives Matter protests, on the grounds of establishing social order. This practice mostly happens without people’s knowledge. However, sometimes Google has notified users that police requested their data.
Such was Zachary McCoy’s case, who received an email from Google; he discovered he was part of an investigation regarding a burglary of a nearby home that happened a year before. Ultimately, the police withdrew McCoy’s subpoena, but that was because he was lucky enough to find a lawyer who knew how to handle geofence warrants cases – which aren’t many.
Google’s Official Geofence Warrants Report
As part of the company’s transparency report, Google’s official note on geofence warrants from August 2021 shows:
- the number of geofence warrants the company received from law enforcement agencies rose from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020
- most geofence warrants come from local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for just 4% of all geofence warrants
- California is the leading state where police officers request these warrants
Geofence warrants defy the US’s Fourth Amendment Constitutional right, which states people shouldn’t be subject to illegal searches and seizures.
The Many Ways Google Keeps Tabs on You
It started as a search engine. But Google quickly climbed the ladder and is now top-of-the-line when it comes to the world wide web. Google is probably your biggest privacy invader.
Here are just a few means Google tracks you:
- Google places one or more cookies on your device to track your web browsing habits and tracks your search history.
- Google monitors your personal messages and emails to deliver targeted ads.
- Google collects and syncs data about Internet users through the various tools it provides to developers, such as Google Analytics, Google Play Services, Google News, or Google Maps.
Many privacy advocates have also criticized Google for disclosing too much information to governments too quickly.
Google Maps is such a useful tool that you don’t even question; everyone knows the basic rules of how it works, but the exact algorithm is beyond human comprehension.
However, street view pictures sometimes show unnecessary additional details such as vehicle registration plates or a person’s house. Additionally, while capturing Street View Images, Google vehicles also collect information from Wi-Fi networks.
Google stores these treasure troves of users’ data in a database called Sensorvault. The New York Times was the first to reveal the existence of this database in 2019.
Sensorvault collected location data from users’ phones each time they used an Android device with location data switched ‘ON’ while using Google services.
How to Take Google’s Tracking Away From Your Shoulders
Your online and offline behavior can always be a target, even if you’re an innocent citizen minding his/her own business. Google’s geofence warrants seems to be just another version of StingRays, facial recognition tools, or surveillance systems.
What you can do to secure your privacy is to start using a VPN. You mask your real IP address with each VPN connection and switch to a different geographical location, even on a different continent. This way, you protect your digital identity and keep all prying eyes at bay!
You’re still on your own when you’re not using any device. But at least, you’ll make police officers’ and cybercriminals’ lives much harder in trying to figure out who you are and what you’re doing online.
What is a geofence warrant?
A geofence warrant, also known as reverse-location warrant, is a search warrant courts of law issue, allowing law enforcement to search a database. Particularly used by US police, the search targets all active mobile devices within a specific area. Google is the only tech company publicly known to provide law enforcement this kind of information.
What is location data?
Location data refers to any information collected about where a user’s phone or other device is located. Communication or network services collect and track this information by GPS satellite in a particular network (for instance, a mobile communications carrier) or service (such as a mapping application.)
Are there other types of warrants that Google issues?
Google also issues keyword warrants, which are similar to geofence warrants. The police makes requests to Google for data on all devices logged in at a specific area and time. Google hands over IP addresses for users who searched for a specific address or certain keywords.
How to avoid being tracked through Sensorvault?
You can’t avoid it entirely, but you can keep Google tracking to a minimum if you disable location tracking from your Google account. For instance, on Android, go to Settings, tap on Google Account, look for ‘Data and personalization’, then toggle off the ‘Web & App Activity.’
Do you think geofence warrants invade your privacy or are they a useful and legitimate investigative tool?
Let me know in the comments section below.