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Leaving Digital Trails

Much of modern law enforcement has moved online as investigators have grown more adept at manipulating data. An investigation may begin with a “geofence warrant,” which is a request to a tech company for all data gathered from their devices located in the vicinity of an alleged crime when it was committed. The company sends back a list of anonymous users that fits the search parameters, which may encompass hundreds or even thousands of individuals’ data. Google said the number of warrants they were served multiplied 15 times just from 2017 to 2018, and other companies like Uber, Apple, and Snapchat have also noted increasing requests from police for data on their users.

Law enforcement winnows down the anonymous lists they receive to a handful of suspects that they will investigate further.

Other options include a “keyword warrant,” which flags any user who searched for particular information, such as the address of a victim or a “how to” guide on committing or covering up a crime. Smart devices log when, where, and who makes every request.

The response from tech companies surrounding their intrusions into people’s private affairs and their willingness to share that information with police has been inconsistent at best. Even as they promised to support the aims of the 2020 protests to rein in police, they kept on profiting from the tech that provided cops the means to monitor people’s most private information. Big Tech’s internal lack of diversity and other discriminatory practices have also made their public calls for social justice ring hollow.

A recent case in Chicago produced a magistrate judge’s ruling that keyword and geofence warrants created an “overbroad scope” and may be considered unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment. The lag between new tech and the courts and lawmakers’ attempts to set appropriate standards is considerable. In the meantime, consumers need to be aware that the more smart devices and apps they integrate into their lives, fewer intimate details will remain truly private. 

 

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