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.