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Google 'Geofence' Law Enforcement Searches Rejected

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Federal courts in Chicago have now rejected ‘geofence’ searches to Google on three occasions. As reported by Arstechnia this means law enforcement agencies now cannot simply ask Google for this information.

‘Geofence’ searches if granted require Google to supply a list of smartphones in a 100m radius of an area. This all comes after a massive increase in ‘geofence’ requests over the last few years.

Law enforcement authorities naturally want as much access to information as possible and have argued in the past that they should be able to gain access to encrypted messages. However, these rejections demonstrate there are limitations to their access which could have some interesting implications.

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‘Geofence’ requests massively on the rise

One of the reasons for the rejections was just how often Google has been required to supply this information in the last few years. As mentioned, requests have massively been on the rise since 2017.

From 2017-18 there was a 1,500-percent increase in ‘geofence’ requests. In the next year, they also increased by 600-percent. This resulted in a hundredfold increase since 2017.

In 2019 alone Google received 180 requests of this nature. The reasons why Google receives so many requests is because pretty much everyone uses Google products in one way or another. Even those with iPhones tend to run an app like Google Maps.

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Google required to hand over hundreds of users’ data

In a Wisconsin Arson case, Google had to supply over 1500 individuals information to the authorities. Given the Chicago federal court rejected Google ‘geofence’ searches this could have wide-ranging impacts on how governments can ask for information from tech companies.

In one instance, officers in Chicago were investigating a stolen drugs case. To try and apprehend the suspects’ investigators asked Google for data about every smartphone that was near two prominent locations in the case at a certain time.

Initially, the authorities asked for every smartphone within 100m of these locations. However, as this was too broad the request was rejected.

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The authorities then limited its request to compact polygons right around the buildings in question. Then asked for anonymous data that could not identify anyone.

The government rejected all three of these requests. This is because they determined that none of these lay within the Fourth Amendment’s requirement. The main issue was that these areas were busy places so the data captured would have included a lot of innocent bystanders.

‘All person’ warrants deemed unconstitutional

In the rejection of the final request, Magistrate Judge Gabriel Fuentes determined that “all person” warrants as unconstitutional. To give this some context, if the police wanted to search a bar they do not have the right to search everyone in that bar at the time of the search.

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Therefore, for a ‘geofence’ search to be granted the authorities need to demonstrate that everyone in that area may have been involved in a crime.

However, this is a very fluid point of law and can be overturned by court trial judges. Despite this, these decisions could throw other common law practices into question.

The contours of the legality of accessing peoples’ data are likely to become more clear over the years to come. However, these could be important decisions in understanding how they may shape going forwards.

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