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Privacy groups demand Google disclose details on geofence warrants

While Google releases biannual reports of government requests it receives, the company hasn't shared how many of them are dragnet queries.

Google doesn't specify how many of its government requests are geofence and keyword warrants, despite concerns from lawmakers and privacy advocates.
Angela Lang/CNET

Over the last three years, Google has received a surge in geofence warrant requests -- a type of request that allows police to gather information on devices in a certain region. The company has also been complying with keyword warrants, which gives police information on anyone who's looked up specific phrases on the search engine. But the public doesn't know exactly how often this happens -- and 60 civil rights and privacy advocacy groups want to change that. 

In a letter sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday, a coalition of 60 groups -- including the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and the Open Technology Institute -- requested that the company start providing monthly data on how many geofence and keyword warrants it receives. 

Google releases a transparency report every six months, detailing government requests for user information, but it doesn't break down what types of requests they are. These requests can range from police asking for a specific suspect's emails with probable cause to a dragnet request that turns innocent people into suspects.

A man riding his bicycle near the scene of a burglary in Florida suddenly found himself a potential suspect because he'd been caught up in a geofence warrant request in March 2019, and he only learned about it nine months later. 

A federal judge ruled in Illinois that geofence warrants violate the Fourth Amendment, and it's also being challenged in Virginia and could potentially be outlawed in New York.


A geofence warrant issued in 2019 looking for people within 150 meters of a bank robbery.

United States v. Chatrie

Since 2017, police have increased how often they send geofence warrant requests to Google, rising 75-fold in just two years. The only reason that data is available is because of Google's amicus curiae brief in the Virginia court case.  

"Currently, Google lumps these invasive court orders in with standard warrants, but geofence and keyword warrants pose a much more potent threat," Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said. "A single one of these orders can track every person at a protest, a house of worship, or a medical facility. With more transparency, we can amplify efforts to outlaw these sweeping search warrants."

While other companies track location data and have also received geofence warrant requests, Google receives the lion's share of these demands because of its location history feature and its Sensorvault database.  

Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

At the Big Tech antitrust hearing in July, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota, questioned Pichai about geofence warrants, telling the Google CEO that people "would be terrified to know that law enforcement could grab general warrants and get everyone's information everywhere." 

Pichai replied that Armstrong's concerns are why Google issues transparency reports for Congress to have oversight, but didn't disclose that its reports don't specify how many requests it receives are geofence warrants.

Without that information, civil rights groups and privacy advocates said it's difficult to push for any regulations or reform on geofence warrants. 

"By providing this semiannual breakdown of requests, tracking the growth of these abusive tactics over time, you'll provide us and other civil society organizations vital ammunition in the fight for privacy," the letter said.