June 17, 2020

Politicians, police, and… Panera: Geofencing is taking over

Your location data has a little something for everyone.

Throw together a presidential election, pivots to food delivery, and a growing skepticism of surveillance tech, and here’s what you get: A rare moment in the spotlight for an eerie new technology.

“Geofencing” means using location data to isolate who is — or was — at a given venue. And it’s everywhere.

Coming to pick up your steel cut oatmeal from Panera? The store will get an alert once you’ve rolled into the parking lot. Grabbing your hair clippers from Walmart? Same deal.

They’re all up in your location data

Groups like CatholicVote.org pick key churches, track the people who attend, and then buy up their data and flood them with political messages.

The Wall Street Journal found that political groups used geofencing to gobble up the data of Black Lives Matter protesters en masse. Have location services enabled? You might get geofenced.

Geofencing is also popular among law enforcement agencies. Say a robbery took place at 9:01pm at an Arby’s — police will likely hit up Google for info on who was in the area.

They’ve sent geofencing warrants at a soaring rate since 2017.

But activists call it unconstitutional

A bill to ban the tactic is picking up steam in New York state.

While geofencing has helped solve some murders and home invasions, it  has also led to mistaken arrests of people who were near a crime but had no role in it.

The scope of geofencing warrants tend to be very broad. And in one Virginia bank robbery case, defense lawyers are giving geofencing its first real constitutional challenge.

These warrants, the lawyers wrote, lack probable cause: They are “the digital equivalent of searching bags of every person walking along Broadway because of a theft in Times Square.”

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