Google Report Shows 'Reverse Warrants' Are Swiftly Becoming Law Enforcement's Go-To Investigative Tool
from the Pokemon-Go,-but-for-cops dept
Thanks to its never-ending collection of location data, Google has become a prime target for law enforcement investigators. Using so-called “reverse warrants,” investigators ask Google to turn over information for all devices in a geofenced area, with the hope of working their way backward from these data points to actual criminal suspects.
They’re called “warrants” but they can’t possibly be supported by probable cause. Treating everyone in the area of a suspected crime as a criminal suspect until things can be sorted out inverts this concept. And the government isn’t always honest with courts about how many innocent people these “reverse warrants” can ensnare. Fortunately, we’ve seen some courts engage in more active reviews of these requests, which has led to a few notable rejections.
Google has released some details [PDF] on reverse warrants, which show they’re an increasingly-popular option for law enforcement agencies. Zack Whittaker breaks down the data for TechCrunch.
The figures, published Thursday, reveal that Google has received thousands of geofence warrants each quarter since 2018, and at times accounted for about one-quarter of all U.S. warrants that Google receives. The data shows that the vast majority of geofence warrants are obtained by local and state authorities, with federal law enforcement accounting for just 4% of all geofence warrants served on the technology giant.
According to the data, Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019 and 11,554 in 2020. But the figures only provide a small glimpse into the volume of warrants received and did not break down how often it pushes back on overly broad requests.
Well, every request could be considered “overly broad,” seeing as the only probable cause used is the presumption that it’s probable Google has the data investigators are looking to obtain. Crimes that occur in heavily trafficked areas or during daylight hours produce the biggest haystacks, increasing the odds of someone being wrongly arrested for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They’re also overly broad in the sense that they make the assumption that the criminal suspect would be carrying a device utilizing Google location services. And they tend to gloss over the fact that this location data isn’t nearly as accurate as cell site location data, which means there’s just as much of a chance for a false negative as there is for a false positive.
But, if this report is any indication, geofence warrants aren’t going away. It’s up to legislators to change that. And until legislators are willing to ban or restrict use of these warrants, it’s up to the courts to thoroughly vet these requests that burden hundreds of people with a presumption of guilt until the thousands of data points gathered by a third party can exonerate them.