Google to end geofence warrants, which give police access to location data

CHARLOTTE — Investigators have sought assistance from Google to obtain warrants that request the company to identify phones in specific areas during criminal activities.

However, that will soon change, because Google will no longer be able to respond to these requests.

Channel 9′s government reporter Joe Bruno looks into the debate between the crime tool and privacy concerns.

There was an instance in Charlotte where a geofence warrant was used when thieves used a U-Haul truck to steal an entire ATM.

Witnesses heard noise but couldn’t identify a suspect.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department got a warrant and asked Google to identify cellphones in a radius of the location between 3:50 a.m. and 4:20 a.m.

Police investigators often turn to big tech companies for help when they don’t have suspects. They request geofence warrants, which can be effective and controversial.

“Police know what life is like in America right now,” said Steve Friedland, a professor at the Elon University School of Law, and former assistant U.S. attorney. “If you ask someone, where’s their cellphone, it’s usually on their person. Most people will carry a cellphone and a wallet.”

‘Innocent people are swept on in it’

According to Google, a person’s Location History is always off by default. Some people have chosen to turn their Location History setting on, which is the only time someone’s location information is shared.

Since 2016, police departments have been taking warrants to Google asking for cellphone IDs in a specific radius during a specific time.

“The area matters, radius requests can really sweep large,” Friedland said. “And also, if the request is for an hour or two, many people can come and go. So many innocent people are swept on in it.”

Google’s data said from January 2023 to June 2023, the company was issued more than 35,000 search warrants.

It’s unclear how many were from CMPD, and Channel 9 made multiple attempts to ask, even during an open media availability. The department declined to comment.

“As a police department, we certainly respect the privacy of everybody in our city, said Lt. Kevin Pietrus, CMPD. “When we utilize different investigative techniques, we are following applicable law and we have multilayers of processes to get to that point to ensure that our processes, procedures, and applicable laws are being followed.”

The legality of that type of warrant has been heavily debated in courts and has generally been upheld, which will change soon.

Google will start storing Location History data on each user’s device instead of maintaining in it Sensorvault, and encrypting the data if the user chooses to back it up.

Once that’s done, the company told Bruno that it will no longer have access to data that would fulfill geofence warrants.

‘We don’t want to be the repository’

“Google is now saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want to be the repository of the world, and we don’t want the police and others coming to us all the time. You can keep it on your own,’” Friedland said.

Google said the change will go into effect gradually on Android and iOS. Users will get a notification to update their accounts.

In the meantime, police departments can keep requesting the warrants. But soon, like all apps, this crime-fighting tool must be updated.

CMPD still hasn’t returned our question about how the geofence changes will affect the department.

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