The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says police are using a single warrant—sometimes known as a “geo-fence” warrant—to access location data from devices that are linked to individuals who have no connection to criminal activity and have not provided any reasonable suspicion of a crime. Jennifer Lynch, EFF’s Surveillance Litigation Director, says these searches are problematic for several reasons.
“First, unlike other methods of investigation used by the police, the police don’t start with an actual suspect or even a target device—they work backward from a location and time to identify a suspect,” Lynch wrote. “This makes it a fishing expedition—the very kind of search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent. Searches like these—where the only information the police have is that a crime has occurred—are much more likely to implicate innocent people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Every device owner in the area during the time at issue becomes a suspect—for no other reason than that they own a device that shares location information with Google.”
Google has responded to the report from the Times by stating that users opt in to collection of the location data stored in Sensorvault. A Google representative also told the lawmakers that users “can delete their location history data, or turn off the product entirely, at any time.” Unfortunately, this explanation falls flat when one considers that Android devices log location data by default and that it is notoriously difficult to opt out of data collection.
No matter what promises Google makes, readers should remember that back in 2010, the Washington Post published a story focusing on the growth of surveillance by the National Security Agency. That report detailed an NSA technique that “enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off.” The technique was reportedly first used in Iraq in pursuit of terrorist targets. Additionally, it was reported in 2016 that a technique known as a “roving bug” allowed FBI agents to eavesdrop on conversations that took place near cellphones.
These tools are now undoubtedly being used on Americans. The reality is that these tools—and many, many others that have been revealed—are being used to spy on innocent Americans, not only violent criminals or suspects. The only way to push back against this invasive surveillance is to stop supporting the companies responsible for the techniques and data sharing. Those who value privacy should invest time in learning how to protect data and digital devices. Privacy is quickly becoming a relic of a past era and the only way to stop it is to raise awareness, opt-out of corporations that don’t respect privacy, and protect your data.