Google has recently announced modifications to its Location History data management, aiming to reduce its capacity to comply with geofence warrants. These warrants, often used by law enforcement in the U.S., request information about all devices in a specific area during a certain time, without targeting specific individuals. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have criticized these warrants as unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, arguing they can turn innocent individuals into suspects and threaten privacy, free speech, and anonymous expression.
The recent case of United States v. Chatrie, the first geofence case to reach the appellate level, and legislative attempts in New York and California to ban such warrants, highlight the ongoing legal debate. Despite this, geofence warrants have been widely used by the FBI and police across various states.
Google, a frequent target for such data requests due to its Sensorvault repository, reported receiving 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020, a significant increase from 982 in 2018. In contrast, Apple reported only 13 geofence warrants in the first half of 2022, as it does not store such data.
Google’s new approach involves storing Location History data on devices rather than servers, reducing the default data retention period to three months (down from 18 months), and encrypting cloud-backed data. These changes, expected to be implemented in the coming months, will render Google unable to respond to new geofence warrants, as it will no longer have access to the relevant data.
While this move marks a significant step towards privacy, Google may not completely withdraw from surveillance activities. The company still collects location data in other contexts, like its Web & App Activity setting, which authorities might seek through lawful demands. Additionally, telecom companies like AT&T continue to respond to similar requests, such as tower dumps, which share similarities with geofence warrants.
Source: The Register