Applications like Google maps allow people to plan trips, find local businesses and check traffic conditions, and the information they store has been used by law enforcement agencies in Illinois and around the country to solve crimes. On Dec. 13, Google announced that it would store this data for a shorter period of time and make it virtually impossible to access. This means that police departments will no longer be able to obtain what are known as geofence warrants from the technology giant.
Geofence warrants, which are also known as reverse-location searches, require companies like Google to hand over the location data of all users who were in a particular area at a particular time. This information is then used to identify individuals who may have committed felonies. Geofence warrants have helped to solve several notable cold cases because Google used to store this information for years. In 2021, Google reported that more than a quarter of the warrant requests it received from law enforcement were for geofence warrants.
Geofence warrants have been harshly criticized by civil rights advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. These organizations say geofence warrants invade people’s privacy, violate the Fourth Amendment and turn everybody who was in a given area at a given time into a suspect. In March 2023, a lawmaker in California introduced a bill that would have prohibited geofence warrants, but it failed to advance in the state legislature.
Google’s decision to revise its data storage policy may have been driven by a belief that geofence warrants are likely to be ruled unconstitutional sooner or later. The courts take the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment very seriously, and federal judges in particular tend to look unfavorably on dragnet-type investigative techniques.