Big Tech Coalition Backs Ban On Warrants Forcing Firms To Hand Over Your Data

big tech back ban warrants forcing firms hand over data news
We’ve written in the past about both reverse location searches and reverse keyword searches and their uncertain legal status. Various US law enforcement agencies have been able to obtain warrants forcing companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft to hand over user location and search history data.

A reverse location search, also known as a “geofence warrant,” requires tech companies that retain user location data, primarily Google, to inform law enforcement of every user who was present in a certain area during a particular period of time. Law enforcement use this information to determine who might have been at or near the scene of a crime when it happened. Google has years of location history for millions of smartphone users, which it must provide to law enforcement if compelled by a geofence warrant. Google transparency report data shows that geofence warrants have been increasing in prevalence over the past few years. Google received 982 geofence warrants in 2018, 8,396 in 2019, and 11,554 in 2020.

Reverse keyword searches are similar to reverse location searches, but rather than handing over location history data, companies have to hand over search history data. These keyword warrants are often tied to location data, compelling search engine companies to inform law enforcement of all users who searched specific terms while residing in certain areas.

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Both privacy advocates and judges have questioned the constitutionality of these kinds of searches. The Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to obtain warrants justified by probable cause in order to conduct searches and seizures. Accordingly, geofence warrants and keyword warrants are presumably issued when law enforcement has reason to believe that particular individuals were involved in criminal activity and that the warrants might help provide further evidence. However, the constitutional uncertainty enters the picture in the way that these kinds of warrants are carried out.

Both geofence warrants and keyword warrants currently require companies to offer up information regarding all users who were present in a certain area or entered a particular search query. Thus, these warrants act as dragnets that catch innocent people who just so happened to fall within their purview and for whom law enforcement have no probable cause. In 2020, an innocent man found himself caught up in the police investigation of a burglary that happened less than a mile from his home. The police had obtained a geofence warrant and subsequently found that the man had passed by the scene of the crime multiple times within the hour it took place.

A number of big tech companies, including Google, Apple, Meta, Snap, Microsoft, and Yahoo, appear to be tired of complying with these warrants. The Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) coalition has published a press release supporting a piece of legislation that would ban geofence warrants and keyword warrants in the state of New York.

The RGS press release included the following statement in support of New York Assembly Bill A84A, “This bill, if passed into law, would be the first of its kind to address the increasing use of law enforcement requests that, instead of relying on individual suspicion, request data pertaining to individuals who may have been in a specific vicinity or used a certain search term.

The bill, which was originally introduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session, has gained renewed interest and is currently in committee for consideration.