Google eases and finally limits user surveillance practices
December 17, 2023

Google eases and finally limits user surveillance practices

Google has finally announced plans to move the storage of users’ location data from its servers to individual devices, dismantling a controversial surveillance technique that has sparked debates over of privacy and legalities around the world.

The practice in question includes the use of “geofencing warrants” by law enforcement agencies to access the vast amount of location data held by Google, a technique that has been criticized for being unconstitutional and overbroad.

Geofencing warrants, also known as reverse location warrants, allow law enforcement authorities to compel Google to reveal information about a user’s devices present in a specific geographic area at a specific time. Critics argue that these orders violate privacy rights and often lead to the inclusion of information about innocent individuals, raising concerns about constitutional violations.

In a recent announcement, Google did not explicitly address the geofencing accounts, instead emphasizing that it gives users “more control” over their data. Basically, this change requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to access a specific device, rather than directly requesting data from Google.

Google is not alone in this, other big companies are also tracking users

While other tech companies have also faced geofencing orders, Google has been a prime target because of its role as a leading collector of sensitive location data. The revelation of Google’s use of location data by law enforcement first came to light in 2019, shedding light on a surveillance technique that has raised ethical and legal questions.

The move by Google follows a trend of increasing requests for location data from various technology companies. Microsoft and Yahoo, among others, have acknowledged receiving geofencing orders, but the extent remains unknown.

The rise in requests for geofencing has been particularly noticeable in recent legal cases. Minneapolis police used geofencing warrants to identify individual protesters following the death of George Floyd, raising concerns about the potential abuse of such warrants.

Although Google, Microsoft i Yahoo supported a failed New York state bill that called for a ban on geofencing orders, companies avoided publicly disclosing information on the number of orders received, writes TechCrunch. An almost unnoticed announcement from Google in 2021 revealed a significant increase in geofencing orders, with 11,554 requests in 2020 alone.

News of Google’s decision to transfer control over users’ location data to their devices was met with cautious praise from privacy advocates. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, known for challenging the constitutionality of geofencing orders, sees this as a positive step. However, there are concerns about potential alternatives, such as “reverse keyword” accounts, which may still reveal sensitive personal information of users.

While the fate of the geofencing order is uncertain, Google’s move could set a precedent for tech companies to rethink their approach to user data and surveillance, contributing to a broader debate about privacy rights and law enforcement practices.