Effort to curb police use of Google data stalls in California

Effort to curb police use of Google data stalls in California

After a man has gone shot dead Outside a bank at Paramount in 2019, Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives turned to Google for help identifying suspects.

Through a search warrant, detectives directed the tech giant to provide cell phone location data to people who were close to the places the man visited on the day he was killed. Data provided by Google eventually led detectives to two suspects who are now under arrest for the murder.

But the police’s demand for location data from Google using what are known as “geofence warrants” also raised concerns that the requests violated the suspects’ constitutional rights. This year, one California Court of Appeals upheld the murder conviction, but ruled that the warrant violated the 4th Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, because it was too broad and could potentially have apprehended thousands of people.

The case, People v. Meza, highlights the central tension over the explosive use of geofence warrants: Law enforcement leaders see Google’s location data as essential to solving crimes, but civil rights groups fear such warrants infringe on the privacy of innocent bystanders. The number of geofencing warrants Google receives from US law enforcement authorities increased from 982 in 2018 to 11,554 in 2020, the most recent data released shows.

Concerns about the controversial law enforcement tool have increased after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion last year. As states have banned or restricted abortion, civil rights groups feared that law enforcement officials could use Google data to find out whether a woman was planning to illegally terminate a pregnancy. While abortion remains legal in California, advocates worry that authorities in states that ban abortions could use geofence warrants to track people who come here for the procedure.

These privacy concerns came to the attention of Rep. Mia Bonta (D-Alameda), who introduced legislation to ban warrants that compel tech companies to reveal the identities of people who may have been in a certain location at a certain time or searched for keywords online. The original version of the bill would have banned all geofence warrants, but it was introduced as part of a bill pack that aim to strengthen California as a sanctuary for those seeking abortion.

“Frankly, it’s a scary time for us in terms of the amount of information that can be made available to third parties,” Bonta said in an interview.

The legislation, AB 793, has received support from privacy advocates, reproductive rights groups, Google and trade association TechNet. But stiff resistance from law enforcement has derailed the effort this year, as lawmakers struggled to figure out how to craft a bill that would protect people seeking abortions by allowing police to use geofence warrants to investigate crimes.

“It was pretty clear that there could be unintended consequences based on how this language was presented,” said Bonta, who has vowed to focus the bill on gender-affirming care and abortion access and will seek to pass it next year. “We wanted to make sure we did it absolutely right.”

The bill faces a high barrier to passage because it could change a law passed by voters in 1982 that requires the support of two-thirds of the state legislature.

Opponents said the bill was too broad and would hamper law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes.

Michelle Contois, Ventura County District Attorney, speaking on behalf of the California District Attorneys Association, said law enforcement officials are not opposed to protecting patients who come to the state for abortions or gender-affirming care. But banning all geofence warrants, she said, is “real overkill.”

“There are some crimes that I think may go unsolved,” she said. “When we’re using that, it’s because we think that’s the best way to get what we need in this case.”

Privacy advocates and abortion activists question whether the data requests are really necessary because geofencing warrants can include information about people who are not potential suspects. The Electronic Frontier Foundation convened Google in 2021 to resist enacting these controversial mandates. Google says it collects data about a user’s address location history for advertising and to improve the company’s services.

The Sacramento debate forged an unusual alliance between tech giants and privacy advocates. In May, Google sent lawmakers a letter saying it supported AB 793. The company added that it would work with authorities to restrict the warrants if too much data is requested.

“Most law enforcement demands target one or more specific accounts. Geofence safeguards, on the other hand, ask for information about users who may have been in a certain location at a certain time. As such, these warrants heighten concerns about whether they impermissibly wipe out innocent users,” wrote Rebecca Prozan, Google’s director of Government Affairs and Public Policy for the West Coast Region, in the letter.

Last year, a coalition of tech giants that includes Google also backed a account in new york that would prevent the search for geolocation data and keywords, although it has not passed the Legislature.

Data reported to the California Department of Justice shows that geofence warrants were used this year in several criminal investigations, including a hit-and-run crime in San Diego and a homicide in Riverside. California authorities also used geofencing warrants to investigate a mexican mafia murder and other crimes. The FBI turned to Google data to find out who was inside the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Geofence warrants were also used to identify people protesting the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Sometimes the people dragged into them are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In one case, a innocent man in florida became a robbery suspect after cycling past a burglarized house in 2019.

District attorneys say California laws are sufficient to protect people’s digital privacy. A geofence warrant usually involves three steps. First, Google provides anonymous information to law enforcement based on the geographic area and time period provided in the warrant. Using the larger dataset, law enforcement narrows down which devices authorities want to investigate before asking Google to provide identifying information such as phone numbers, emails and names, according to the bill’s review.

“It’s not just us who ask Google and Google gives us everyone’s information,” said Contois of the District Attorneys Association. “It’s not until we’ve gone through several steps and convinced the judge at each step of probable cause that we might be able to get identifying information and names.”

The California Police Chiefs Assn. did not respond to a request for comment. It was one of several law enforcement agencies that opposed the bill, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which pushed for the bill, said AB 793 proposed banning all geofence warrants because there were concerns that more targeted legislation would have loopholes that could still result in law enforcement identifying abortion seekers. Restricting the account, she said, is difficult for some of these reasons.

“I’m not saying we can’t do this,” she said. “We just needed more time to do that than what was left in this session.”

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