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[News] Google reports increase in geofence warrants

In our ever-connected world, being in the right place at the wrong time is taking on a whole new meaning. 

In their latest transparency report, Google reports that geofence warrants delivered to their company have increased substantially since 2009. Geofence warrants are court-issued search warrants that allow law enforcement to identify all active mobile devices within a perimeter or geofence area.

Geofence warrants have become increasingly common over the past decade. As Wired explains, in the U.S. these warrants had increased from 941 in 2018 to 11,033 in 2020. And that’s just Google. Other tech companies that collect location data, including Apple, Microsoft, and Uber, receive similar requests each year. Google is simply the first to identify which data requests were specifically geofence warrants, allowing privacy researchers a glimpse into just how often law enforcement agencies are requesting this data. 

These warrants ostensibly exist to help police pinpoint potential suspects in criminal activity at a given location. However, because all devices in the area get flagged during the window of time the data of innocent bystanders is caught up in the net, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

For example, in January 2020, Zachary McCoy received notification that Google had provided his data to local police. He had no idea what was going on and ended up hiring an attorney. As reported in The Markup, his location data from a bike ride in the neighborhood made him a suspect in a local burglary. As he told NBC News, after court proceedings on his behalf, the police finally ruled him out as a suspect.

Not everyone is as lucky. Back in 2018 in Avondale, Arizona, Jorge Molina was arrested and held in jail for six days on a murder charge based on a geofence warrant. Eventually, he too was freed, but only after losing his job and his car in the course of the investigation. He subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city of Avondale.

These warrants can target more than those in the vicinity of a crime being committed. Forbes reports that Google recently had to turn over data for anyone who was near the scene of a library and museum fire in Kenosha, Wisconsin during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Innocent people trying to put out the fire got lumped in with those who may have caused it, simply because their phones or other devices were logged at that location.

Jake Laperruque, senior policy counsel for the Constitution Project at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, suggests geofence warrants can have a “chilling effect” on nonviolent protests. Furthermore, Wired notes that legal scholars worry that although this kind of data does not indicate someone is guilty of a crime, it could open the door to invasive search warrants without sufficient cause. 

Because it’s “so invasive,” Laperruque argues that geofence data “should be a last resort.”

In other news

  • App stores may lose exclusive payment rights. In South Korea a new law may put a leash on Apple and Google’s app store payments. Currently all purchases have to go through proprietary in-app purchasing systems, where the platforms take their healthy 30% cut. According to Gizmodo, if these companies fail to comply with the new law, they face fines against their revenue. This new law, as well as others under consideration in the U.S. and Australia, could finally open up these app stores to different payment options, which could in turn mean more money for the app developers or lower prices for consumers.
  • Kicking out the Kallax? Ikea announced a new buy-back program in the U.S. for some of its furniture. According to Fast Company, there will be an initial pilot program in Pennsylvania with the goal of expanding it across the company. Similar programs already exist in other areas of the world, where the goal is to ensure as much of the company’s products are reused and to keep furniture out of the landfill. It also may lead the build-it-yourself company to redesign some of their most popular items to make them easier to return and reuse, which could, in turn, lead to more durable designs.
  • Buyer solves Banksy NFT artwork heist. Banksy’s first artwork auctioned online on the artist’s website last weekend for an NFT called “Great Redistribution of the Climate Change Disaster.” The auction winner, prominent NFT collector “Pranksy”, began to suspect Banksy’s site was hacked, and the NFT — a digital token which claims the ownership of a digital artwork — was a fake. The BBC reports the buyer posted several Twitter messages exposing the scam, which seemed to prompt the hacker to refund his purchase (less a fee). “Pranksy” said it was “totally unexpected,” adding that “press coverage, plus the fact I had found the hacker and followed him on Twitter may have pushed him into a refund”.

    Those familiar with Banksy’s art might ask, could the culprit be the artist? Has the BBC been duped? We all remember the shredding of his “Girl with Balloon” painting as it went live to auction at Sotheby’s. Performing a digital art heist of Banksy’s own making sounds right up his alley. Many NFT certificates sell for dizzying figures, and this was no exception. “Pranksy ” initially, happily forked over £224K, but was it all real? Readers, what do you think? 
  • Substack catches a big fish. The upstart newsletter platform Substack, which has been attracting major figures in politics and culture such as Heather Cox Richardson, Michael Moore, Andrew Sullivan, and Patti Smith, has not been as well known for fiction. That all changes with The Guardian’s announcement that author Salman Rushdie plans to publish his latest book as a serial on the platform. Serial, or episodic, fiction, with new installments coming out on a regular basis, seems radical to our modern sensibilities but was in fact how most novels were published in the 18th and 19th centuries, as they were more affordable to working people than complete books. Only time will tell if his experiment will succeed, or if Rushdie will eventually swim back to more familiar waters. 

Tip of the week

In our digital, always-online world, it’s good to be aware of when and how people can track you and gain access to your devices and other information.

To prevent unwanted tracking on your phone, especially if you go to a large event such as a concert or a protest and you don’t want to show up on a database later, you can turn on airplane mode or turn off your phone entirely. Keep in mind that if you turn it on “just for a minute” to check texts or skim social media during downtime, you’ve defeated the whole purpose. And of course, you will also want to leave your wearables at home.

For your credit cards, passport, and other items that include chips, you might be concerned about criminals using RFID readers to skim your information. While RFID-blocking wallets claim their material blocks such devices, you probably don’t need to worry. The truth is, there are literally “no documented cases of someone actually using an RFID reader to steal a credit card,” says Patrick Sweeney, author of “RFID for Dummies.”

Unless you admire the design of a particular RFID-blocking wallet, you don’t really need this item to protect your credit cards. Card readers only offer retailers a one-time transaction encryption method to verify a purchase, and if hackers ever got hold of one of these encryption tokens, they could only make one transaction, and you’d be covered by your credit card’s insurance automatically.

So it’s a good idea to be safe and aware, but take care to not let these things make you overly paranoid.

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Jackie Dana avatar

Jackie Dana

Jackie has been writing since childhood. As the Namecheap blog’s content manager and regular contributor, she loves bringing helpful information about technology and business to our customers. In her free time, she enjoys drinking copious amounts of black tea, writing novels, and wrangling a gang of four-legged miscreants. More articles written by Jackie.

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