Mississippians might be unaware of a type of warrant that has become increasingly popular among law enforcement officers over the past decade. Known as geofence warrants, officers can obtain location data of every person near a crime scene to look for suspects. Geofence warrants have played a role in cracking some major cold case crimes, but they also raise constitutional issues. Recently, Google made an announcement that will threaten geofence warrants and possibly put an end to them.
What are geofence warrants?
Geofence warrants are orders from criminal courts for technology companies to provide location data of every connected personal device in the vicinity of a crime at a specific time. These warrants are typically sent to Google since it maintains a vast trove of location data for personal devices across the U.S. Anyone with a smartphone or other internet-connected device near a crime scene will have their location data logged by Google. Law enforcement officers use this data to identify potential persons of interest and suspects when the assailants’ identities are unknown.
Google’s announcement and privacy concerns
Criminal defense attorneys have decried geofence warrants as unconstitutional because they interfere with individuals’ privacy, including people who might have been near a crime scene but were innocent passersby. Google announced that it will revoke its access to location data. Instead of Google collecting users’ location data, this information will now only be stored on the users’ devices. This means that geofence warrants will be useless since Google will not have the data available to comply with geofence warrants.
Google’s announcement could make it easier for courts to find that geofence warrants are unconstitutional. While most of these warrants have been directed at Google, they could ostensibly be sent to other tech companies. With Google raising concerns about user privacy, courts could be more inclined to find these types of warrants unconstitutional when directed toward other companies.