Tech Companies Oppose ‘Reverse Warrants,’ Say Surveillance Of User Location Data Should Be Limited To Tech Companies

from the maybe-don't-gather-all-this-data-in-the-first-place? dept

Google’s market share and capacity to gather billions of data points has made it the most popular target for so-called warrants that seem to elude both particularity requirements and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Carpenter case.

To be a reasonable search, law enforcement is supposed to be able to show the information it seeks can be found where they say it is and be relevant to the investigation. Reverse warrants — warrants in which law enforcement seeks location data and other info from everyone in a certain area at a certain time — only satisfy one of these requirements. If courts are persuaded the only thing that needs to be shown is the likelihood Google has this data, then the warrants are “good.”

If the warrants need to show the data sought pertains to criminal suspects, the warrants should obviously fail. Rather than showing probable cause to search for data related to suspects, reverse warrants turn everyone in the area into a potential suspect and allows law enforcement to work backwards from the data dump to identify people it feels might be involved in the crime being investigated.

Recently, a Virginia court blocked a reverse warrant served to Google in a robbery case, saying it was unconstitutionally vague. This decision remains an outlier, though, and use of reverse warrants continues to increase exponentially with each passing year.

In a legal brief filed in the case, Google said geofence requests jumped 1,500% from 2017 to 2018, and another 500% from 2018 to 2019. Google now reports that geofence warrants make up more than 25% of all the warrants Google receives in the U.S., the judge wrote in her ruling.

Some belated pushback has begun, courtesy of the state of New York. There’s more pushback on the way, this time via the companies targeted by geofence/reverse warrants and so-called “keyword” warrants, which demand information on internet users who have searched for certain terms. Google is the primary recipient of these warrants as well.

The “Reform Government Surveillance” group — composed of a dozen tech companies, including Google, Apple, Twitter, and Meta — has issued this statement in support of the New York bill.

Reform Government Surveillance supports the adoption of New York Assembly Bill A84A, the Reverse Location Search Prohibition Act, which would prohibit the use of reverse location and reverse keyword searches.

This bill, if passed into law, would be the first of its kind to address the increasing use of law enforcement requests that, instead of relying on individual suspicion, request data pertaining to individuals who may have been in a specific vicinity or used a certain search term.

The EFF correctly points out the danger of these warrants, whose use has exploded over the last half-decade.

These reverse warrants have serious implications for civil liberties. Their increasingly common use means that anyone whose commute takes them goes by the scene of a crime might suddenly become vulnerable to suspicion, surveillance, and harassment by police. It means that an idle Google search for an address that corresponds to the scene of a robbery could make you a suspect. It also means that with one document, companies would be compelled to turn over identifying information on every phone that appeared in the vicinity of a protest, as happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin during a protest against police violence. And, as EFF has argued in amicus briefs, it violates the Fourth Amendment because it results in an overbroad fishing-expedition against unspecified targets, the majority of whom have no connection to any crime.

These are problematic. But so are the data-harvesting efforts of tech companies. Americans are generally leery of the always-on tracking and data collection these companies engage in. They become significantly more worried when they discover just how easily the government can access this massive amount of data.

Tech companies are right to oppose government surveillance overreach. But they also need to be a lot more honest with their users, informing them in plain English about what’s being collected, when it’s being collected, how long it’s retained, and what the aggregate collection can reveal about their activities and social connections.

They also should do more to assure third party app developers aren’t abusing permissions to collect even more data government agencies can obtain without a warrant. And they should give users easy ways to opt out of collections and ensure users are well informed about potential usability downsides of opting out so they can grant truly informed consent to service providers.

Making noise about government surveillance doesn’t excuse the bad habits of tech companies. While it’s good to see them stand up against government overreach, they should probably take this opportunity to engage in a bit of introspection to see if they’re not just making the situation worse by hoovering up every bit of data possible, putting it only a questionable piece of legal paperwork away from the government’s all-seeing eyes.

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Companies: apple, google, meta, twitter

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Comments on “Tech Companies Oppose ‘Reverse Warrants,’ Say Surveillance Of User Location Data Should Be Limited To Tech Companies”

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LACanuck (profile) says:

Honest question

Forgive my naivete, but I have a question about why requesting location data for the area around a crime at the time of the crime is so unconstitutional.

In my mind, I see this as equivalent to collecting all of the videos from cameras that are at or near the scene of a crime, then watching the hours before and after the time the crime was committed. I’m pretty certain that doesn’t fall into the category of unconstitutional.

What makes location data different?

Naughty Autie says:


If you’re at home watching TV at the time the bank in the street behind your apartment building’s being robbed, how likely are you to have witnessed anything? In such a case, why do the police need to know you that where in the area? That’s why it’s unconstitutional. Think about it.

LACanuck (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If cameras on the street show me entering my house and not leaving until after the crime, the police have the same knowledge, just achieved using a different technique. One that’s not unconstitutional.

It feels to me that the source of the knowledge (phone vs camera) is the difference. And that doesn’t seem sufficient to be the distinguishing criterium.

And please know I’m not trying to be difficult with this. I’ve heard many experienced people say the same thing. I’m just trying to understand the legal principle at work here.

Cypher says:

Re: Re: Re:

A more appropriate example in this case would be a tracking device on your car. If law enforcement don’t have a reason to suspect you of being involved in a criminal activity, do they have the ability to put a tracking device on your car? No, no they do not. That is the crux of the matter.

To use the example of a bank behind your home – if law enforcement have an image of you on the bank’s security cameras walking by the bank in the direction of your home, that’s really all they know. They can’t then go to your home/apartment complex/hotel/whatever and demand any security camera footage, because they have no other evidence that you were participating in the crime. That’s an unconstitutional fishing expedition, and still gets rubber-stamped by the courts all too often.

The basics of it are, if law enforcement is unable to explain how and why they need your information specifically, then it should be denied them by default under the Constitution’s prohibitions against unwarranted searches, and the right to privacy of your person and effects. Instead, law enforcement is going “we need info on anyone that could have possibly been in this area, and we’ll decide what’s important from there.” It’s literally the reverse of what is supposed to happen.

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