What you should know about geofencing

Geofence and keyboard warrants are useful for law enforcement, but they’re highly controversial.

In January, New York lawmakers proposed banning law enforcement from using geofencing and keyword warrants.

Though the bill hasn’t seen much movement yet, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has returned the issue to the spotlight.

First, what the heck are these warrants?

Geofence and keyword warrants are used to get tech companies like Google to hand over users’ data. Like traditional warrants, they require a judge’s approval.

Geofence warrants use location data to identify people who were near a crime scene at a specific time, per Slate.

  • Google says geofence warrant requests increased 1.5k% between 2017 and 2018, and now make up over 25% of all US warrants it receives.
  • Geofencing has been used to find people who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection, and in a bank robbery case in Virginia.

Keyword warrants look at online searches made within specific locations or time frames.

  • A 2017 keyword warrant asked Google for anyone who searched a fraud victim’s name in the city where the crime occurred.

Though perhaps useful for law enforcement…

… they’re controversial. New York’s proposed ban is supported by the ACLU and several tech companies, including Google. Also:

  • Some judges have ruled that the warrants violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • Innocent people have become suspects, including an Arizona man wrongfully arrested for murder, and a Florida man who became a burglary suspect after he biked past a crime scene.

Privacy advocates are also concerned…

… that warrants could be used to find people seeking abortions in states where it has or will become illegal.

In May, a report from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) detailed how tech might be used to enforce new laws if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

  • Albert Fox Cahn, STOP’s executive director, told Wired, “The truth is that when you develop those techniques, you are at the whim of those in power and whatever they next decide to call a crime.”

Related: Earlier this month, lawmakers introduced a bill to prevent data brokers from sharing location and health data. Read our coverage here.

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