We all know that our cell phones are tracking our personal information, including our location. Depending on who you ask, it’s a handy feature. Our phones keep track of where we are and where we’ve been so we can easily find our way back to that new donut shop we tried last weekend. But just because Google knows where we’ve been, should they share that information with the police?
Google’s use of location tracking information has been under increasing scrutiny in the past several years. In 2019, a credit union was robbed in Virginia and the suspect fled on foot. Police got what is known as a “geofence” warrant. Geofence warrants require a provider- usually Google, to use its customer specific information to locate the devices that were in a certain area during a time period specified by the warrant. Because the Geofence warrants aren’t targeted to a specific individual, they have the potential to implicate anyone who just happened to be in the vicinity of a crime- turning innocent people into suspects. The Virginia warrant turned up a suspect, Okello Chatrie. Mr. Chatrie was arrested. Since that time, his lawyers, federal public defenders in Richmond, Virginia, Laura Koenig and Paul Gill, joined by Michael Price from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, have been arguing that the use of the geofence warrant was unconstitutional and was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable search and seizures.
In March of 2022, U.S. District Judge Hannah Lauck found that the geofence warrant in Mr. Chatrie’s case violated the Fourth Amendment by gathering the data from 19 cell phones near the crime without having any evidence that they were involved in the crime. However, that finding did not help Mr. Chatrie. The judge denied his motion to suppress the evidence from the geofence warrant because the investigating officers had acted in good faith by consulting with prosecutors and relying on past experience with similar warrants. The case made its way to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where a ruling is pending after the parties presented argument early this month. You can listen to the argument here.
In a surprise move, after the oral argument, on December 12th, Google announced that its taking new steps to protect your personal data. Google will no longer keep your location history. Instead, that information will only be kept on your phone for a limited period of time. And if you’re a user that backs up data to the cloud, Google will encrypt the data so that it can’t be read, even by Google. It’s not clear why Google made this change, but the move protects the privacy of millions of Americans, returns control of their information, and may be the end of the geofence warrant.