It’s easy for law enforcement to overreach their powers in their efforts to stop crime. As the police use ever-more-intrusive methods for tracking people, they often raise the argument that the innocent people caught up in their dragnets have nothing to fear.
The fact remains that dragnets inherently scoop up the innocent along with the potentially guilty. And increasingly, law enforcement around the U.S. has been using a new kind of dragnet called a “geofence warrant.”
Traditionally, police have needed individualized probable cause to get a warrant. That means showing that there is good reason to believe a certain individual has committed a crime. With a geofence warrant, also called a “reverse search warrant,” no individual suspicion is needed.
Law enforcement just gets a judge to authorize Google or another technology provider to hand over location data. Once a crime has been committed, anyone who was in the area is now under suspicion — and the police can prove you were in the area by pulling the data from your phone.
Consider the case of Zachary M. Luckily, Google has a policy of notifying users when law enforcement pulls a geofence warrant on them. Zachary got an email from Google saying that the local police in Gainesville, Florida, had asked for information related to his account and that the company would turn it over unless Zachary went to court to block its release.
After some digging and with help from a defense attorney, Zachary found out that the police had pulled a geofence warrant and identified his phone’s activity as suspicious. They were now seeking his identity.
There had been a burglary in the area, and Zachary’s phone was shown in the area several times at the time of the burglary.
As it turns out, Zachary was riding his bike back and forth along the same route, which just happened to pass the burglarized house. He was also using a tracking app to tell how far he had ridden. The data from that tracking app is what Google had turned over in response to the geofence warrant. His identity was next.
Geofence warrants are exploding in popularity
Google says that geofence warrants from local, state and federal authorities increased by over 1,500% between 2017 and 2018, and another 500% the following year. Law enforcement from all around the country — specifically including Milwaukee — are using these dragnets to examine the data of innocent people in an effort to identify guilty ones.
If Google hadn’t told Zachary that he was being investigated, or if Zachary couldn’t afford a lawyer, he could easily have been caught up in that dragnet, and he was completely innocent of the crime.