Law enforcement has become increasingly sophisticated about its use of technology. One recent example is the geofence warrant, which often uses data from Google’s mapping app to place the device’s owner at the scene of a crime when it occurs. Rather than tracking a single device’s movements, the warrant enables law enforcement to track all active devices in what can be a large area at the time of the crime.
While a traditional warrant requires an address and a reason, geofence warrants are different because they are reverse location searches. Law enforcement then whittles down the list to identify their suspects. This concept has caused many civil rights advocates to voice concern because it is seemingly a violation of privacy and other rights protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. In fact, there is now a New York State bill that would ban geofence warrants. Privacy advocates also argue that the average person does not understand how intrusive the technology is, nor how to turn off the tracking. Moreover, investigators found that Google apps continue to store data even though the company said that the privacy setting prevented it.
Google defends itself
The history function on Google Maps for Android or iPhone tracks all the phone’s movements when the mapping apps history function is engaged. This amounts to millions of devices’ digital footprints stored in a giant database called Sensorvault. To the tech giant’s credit, it refuses to provide this information without the geofence warrant, but the number of geofence warrants jumped 1500% from 2017 to 2018 and another 500% from 2018 to 2019.
Law enforcement considers it to be proof
Officers and prosecutors often consider information gathered this way to be just as valid as a fingerprint. However, there have already been instances where suspects are erroneously identified because they had sold their old phone to someone who then commits the crime.
Challenging these warrants
There are currently no federal or Michigan laws involving geofence warrants, but this could be an evolving issue in the coming months. The warrant’s troubling nature could mean that the accused can fight to have the evidence or case thrown out. Those with questions about law enforcement’s use of geofence warrants could better protect themselves by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney.