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The new warrant: how US police mine Google for your location and search history

Published: September 17, 2021
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Source: the guardian

It was a routine bike ride around the neighborhood that landed Zachary McCoy in the crosshairs of the Gainesville, Florida, police department.

In January 2020, an alarming email from Google landed in McCoy’s inbox. Police were requesting his user data, the company told him, and McCoy had seven days to go to court and block its release.

McCoy later found out the request was part of an investigation into the burglary of a nearby home the year before. The evidence that cast him as a suspect was his location during his bike ride – information the police obtained from Google through what is called a geofence warrant. For simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, McCoy was being investigated and, as a result, his Google data was at risk of being handed over to the police.

Geofence location warrants and reverse search warrants such as the ones McCoy dealt with are increasingly becoming the tool of choice for law enforcement. Google revealed for the first time in August that it received 11,554 geofence location warrants from law enforcement agencies in 2020, up from 8,396 in 2019 and 982 in 2018.

It’s a concerning trend, argue experts and advocates. They worry the increase signals the start of a new era, one in which law enforcement agencies find ever more creative ways to obtain user information from data-rich tech companies. And they fear agencies and jurisdictions will use this relatively unchecked mechanism in the context of new and controversial laws such as the criminalization of nearly all abortions in Texas.

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