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What is a geofence warrant?

On Behalf of | Dec 4, 2020 | Criminal Defense |

Law enforcement is getting increasingly sophisticated when it comes to technology. One recent breakthrough has been geofence warrants, which use the location history function on your phone’s Google mapping app to place you in the vicinity of a crime.

Unlike traditional warrants, where the officer needs a reason to get the info and provide an address of the suspect’s location, geofence warrants (also known as reverse location searches) sweep up data on devices in the vicinity of the crime. Google defends itself, saying that it only provides data of those who opt into the location history function and has refused requests unless there is a warrant. The company also notifies users whose location information has been provided.

“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We developed a process specifically for these requests that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed,” Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said in a statement.

When Google provides the information, the results are anonymous ID, and law enforcement identifies devices whose movements are considered suspicious. This data is more accurate because the location data uses a combination of GPS signals, Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth beacons, and cell towers.

Who is getting tracked?

Despite lingering questions of constitutionality raised by many judges and defense attorneys, the number of requests for geofence warrants by law enforcement grew an estimated 1,500% in 2018 and 500% in 2019, which had a total of 156,000 requests. Law enforcement uses these warrants to arrest bank robbers and murderers, but it also tracked suspects in non-violent crimes. It was even used to track suspects involved in protests that erupted in the summer of 2020.

State officials challenging warrants

There are no federal laws on the books preventing or regulating the use of geofence warrants, but some states are challenging their legality. At this time, Colorado has not made an official inquiry into the matter, but the chances are that that time will come.

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