In Maryland, a type of criminal warrant called a geofence warrant has become increasingly common. These warrants compel technology companies to turn over location data culled from users’ smartphones. Geofence warrants seek the location data and identities of every smartphone user within a certain proximity to a crime scene at a specific time. Recently, however, a move by Google might signal the end of geofence warrants as a popular law enforcement investigatory tool.
Understanding location data and geofence warrants
When turned on and connected to the internet, smartphones track the location history of their users with GPS. Even if an individual turns off their smartphone, the provider will still collect location data for the user’s location when they turn their phone off and again when they turn it back on. Law enforcement officers have increasingly asked for warrants to seek the location history of all people within a set distance from a crime scene. These warrants, called geofence warrants, have typically been targeted at Google because of Google’s extensive collection and retention of location history information. Criminal defense lawyers have argued that geofence warrants are unconstitutional as they violate privacy, including the privacy of innocent people.
Google’s revocation of location history access
Google recently announced its revocation of location history access. The company will no longer collect and retain the location data of its users from smartphones. Instead, each user’s location history will be stored locally on their phones. Since Google is the main technology company that has compiled location history data, the company’s move will likely significantly cut down on geofence warrants.
While Google’s announcement will likely have a significant impact on the number of geofence warrants issued, smaller companies could continue to receive them. Courts need to consider the constitutionality of these warrants. If they find that they unconstitutionally violate privacy, they should be disallowed.