Google announced this week that it will be making several important changes to the way it handles users’ “Location History” data. These changes would appear to make it much more difficult—if not impossible—for Google to provide mass location data in response to a geofence warrant, a change we’ve been asking Google to implement for years.
Geofence warrants require a provider—almost always Google—to search its entire reserve of user location data to identify all users or devices located within a geographic area during a time period specified by law enforcement. These warrants violate the Fourth Amendment because they are not targeted to a particular individual or device, like a typical warrant for digital communications. The only “evidence” supporting a geofence warrant is that a crime occurred in a particular area, and the perpetrator likely carried a cell phone that shared location data with Google. For this reason, they inevitably sweep up potentially hundreds of people who have no connection to the crime under investigation—and could turn each of those people into a suspect.
Geofence warrants have been possible because Google collects and stores specific user location data (which Google calls “Location History” data) altogether in a massive database called “Sensorvault.” Google reported several years ago that geofence warrants make up 25% of all warrants it receives each year.
Google’s announcement outlined three changes to how it will treat Location History data. First, going forward, this data will be stored, by default, on a user’s device, instead of with Google in the cloud. Second, it will be set by default to delete after three months; currently Google stores the data for at least 18 months. Finally, if users choose to back up their data to the cloud, Google will “automatically encrypt your backed-up data so no one can read it, including Google.”
All of this is fantastic news for users, and we are cautiously optimistic that this will effectively mean the end of geofence warrants. These warrants are dangerous. They threaten privacy and liberty because they not only provide police with sensitive data on individuals, they could turn innocent people into suspects. Further, they have been used during political protests and threaten free speech and our ability to speak anonymously, without fear of government repercussions. For these reasons, EFF has repeatedly challenged geofence warrants in criminal cases and worked with other groups (including tech companies) to push for legislative bans on their use.
However, we are not yet prepared to declare total victory. Google’s collection of users’ location data isn’t limited to just the “Location History” data searched in response to geofence warrants; Google collects additional location information as well. It remains to be seen whether law enforcement will find a way to access these other stores of location data on a mass basis in the future. Also, none of Google’s changes will prevent law enforcement from issuing targeted warrants for individual users’ location data if police have probable cause to support such a search.
But for now, at least, we’ll take this as a win. It’s very welcome news for technology users as we usher in the end of 2023.