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April 2021


Geofence warrants: The battle is just beginning

BY MARK LANTERMAN

This past February, a TechCrunch article explained how geofence warrants were being used to identify those involved in the Minneapolis protests of last summer. With a judge’s approval, geofence warrants essentially allow law enforcement to obtain information on anyone who was in a particular area at a particular time. With these general perimeters, it is more than possible that individuals who are not involved in any criminal activity will have their information requested simply for matching the search criteria. The article describes how one Minneapolis resident, Said Abduallahi, “received an email from Google stating that his account information was subject to the warrant, and would be given to the police. But Abdullahi said he had no part in the violence and was only in the area to video the protests.”1 

Geofence warrants mark a clear divide between those who prioritize privacy and those who want to use the long arm of surveillance technology for law enforcement. For law enforcement, geofence warrants are a powerful tool in identifying offenders; in
addition to the Minneapolis protests, these warrants were widely used to locate rioters involved in the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. As the Washington Post noted afterward, “The Capitol, more than most buildings, has a vast cellular and wireless data infrastructure… Such infrastructure, such as individual cell towers, can turn any connected phone into its own tracking device.”2 Historically, Google cooperates with law enforcement in providing anonymized user data, following up with more specific information for potential suspects; in fact, these sorts of warrants saw a 500 percent request increase between 2018 and 2019.3 While this degree of connectivity provides law enforcement with an easy tracking method, many argue that the risks and potential abuses of this capability outweigh the benefits.

By their nature, these warrants can have serious impacts upon the guilty and innocent alike. Given this impartiality, it is frequently argued that the tool facilitates unconstitutional searches and seizures. Those who are caught up in the net are often surprised to learn the extent of the geographical data that has been collected about them—and with their permission! User agreements, such as those with Google, make information sharing under certain circumstances permissible. With that in mind, it is most likely that geofence warrants and the associated concerns with their use will be addressed by the courts; the first major case to confront the potential Fourth Amendment violations of geofence warrants involves a 2019 armed robbery that occurred in Virginia.4

In Illinois, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Fuentes rejected a warrant request involving a drug theft case, stating, “if the government can identify that wrongdoer only by sifting through the identities of unknown innocent persons… a federal court in the United States of America should not permit the intrusion.”5 But in the meantime, these warrants will most likely continue to be used extensively by law enforcement. 

In using the multitude of applications on our smart phones, we often fail to recognize the vast amounts of personal data that we allow to be collected, stored, and in some instances, shared with other parties. It is always important to be mindful of our technological footprint and the policies employed by major organizations such as Apple or Google. Since most of us tend to click “agree” without a thought, it is also wise to research and understand how your data is being used. Google now deletes location history data after 18 months, and Apple has stated with respect to providing product backdoors and broad government access, “We believe security shouldn’t come at the expense of individual privacy.”6 But Apple also complies with legally valid requests. Unfortunately there are no perfect methods to control and monitor the huge volume of data we allow to be collected about us. 

 


MARK LANTERMAN is CTO of Computer Forensic Services. A former member of the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Taskforce, Mark has 28 years of security/forensic experience and has testified in over 2,000 matters. He is a member of the MN Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.  

 


Notes

 https://techcrunch.com/2021/02/06/minneapolis-protests-geofence-warrant/ 

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/01/08/trump-mob-tech-arrests/ 

3 https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/law-enforcement-is-using-location-tracking-on-mobile-devices-to-identify-suspects-geofence 

4 https://www.nacdl.org/Content/United-States-v-Chatrie,-No-3-19-cr-130-(E-D-Va-) 

5 https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/law-enforcement-is-using-location-tracking-on-mobile-devices-to-identify-suspects-geofence 

6 https://www.apple.com/privacy/government-information-requests/ 


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