Let’s talk about a law enforcement tool that you may not be aware of yet: a Geo-Fence warrant. Geo-fencing is the ability to draw a two-dimensional shape on an online map, and then harvest all the data emitted by every device within this fence. Consider circling the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 and grabbing the location, phone numbers and communications sent to and from any phone owned by those who happened to be in the area that day.
Google Maps is a very convenient navigational tool used by millions around the world however, this ‘free’ tool comes at a potentially very high price. The convenience of having a phone with built-in GPS allows you to find your way around an unfamiliar city while on vacation, but it can also land you in hot water if police execute a geo-fence warrant – and your phone happens to be on the list.
The problem with Geo-fencing is its indiscriminate nature regarding data collection and it routinely identifies people who are merely innocent bystanders. Journalists, law enforcement, politicians and bystanders were all around the Capitol building that day and their data was also supplied by Google when complying with law enforcement requests.
Just because we Can doesn’t mean we Should
As reported by Sidney Fussell in WIRED – An Explosion in Geofence Warrants Threatens Privacy Across the US, the number of geo-fence warrants has risen dramatically over the past few years. In 2018 Google reported receiving 941 requests for geo-fence data from law enforcement agencies across the US, in 2020, they received 11,033.
Why the massive increase in requests? Could it have something to do with growing protests like Black Lives Matter, the Capitol Hill riots, or the questioning of the 2020 election results? Perhaps law enforcement has simply discovered a new hi-tech tool that has yet to be regulated.
With Big Data comes Big Responsibility
It’s one thing to request geo-fencing data of a specific person-of-interest, however, gathering information indiscriminately from people protesting against systemic racism is quite another thing. The right to protest against injustice is guaranteed by our constitutions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The right to be profiled by law enforcement for simply being in an area where a protest occurs is certainly not.
Geo-fencing requests are a dragnet of information that often include data belonging to people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, one request reportedly harvested information from over 1500 different individuals.
We live in an era where too much data is collected from all of us. Allowing geo-fencing warrants does not mean that law enforcement should have the right to collect data from thousands of innocent people in hopes of finding a few troublemakers. A warrant is a legal tool – that a judge must review, to solidify a case against a suspect. A warrant is not intended to enable law enforcement to create a geo-fencing, data-driven community.
Geo-fencing needs to be federally regulated so that law enforcement cannot cast a wide ‘privacy-compromising’ net in hopes of catching one fish.