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Geofencing Warrants Are Putting Civil Rights and Free Speech in Jeopardy

by Dale Chappell

Hundreds of protestors marched in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020. Little did these protestors know that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued at least a dozen geofence warrants to gather data from their electronic devices they carried that day, even if they didn’t break any laws. Critics charge this type of digital harassment chills constitutionally protected speech and prevents the public from holding the government accountable.

A geofence warrant requires a company to disclose personal information to the police that the company obtains from any electronic devices in the area covered by the warrant. These warrants usually reach a broad range of people, from tens to hundreds, in a given area and are not unlike a “dragnet” of sorts to target a large group of people. Some say it’s not any different from a “general warrant,” which the First Amendment was designed to prohibit.

The information gathered in the geofence warrants issued to Google during the Kenosha protests, for instance, included email addresses, phone numbers, and any information on Google’s services used by the device owner. It exposes the intimate details of the protestors who were ensnared in the geofence warrants issued. Google, the only company that is known to provide data in response to these warrants, provided information that police have issued at least 20,000 warrants in the last three years to their company.

Another problem with geofence warrants is that a vast majority of them remain sealed and out of the public’s knowledge. That means the public has no idea when the police—the very people the public may be trying to hold accountable through public demonstrations—are gathering their personal information in an attempt to retaliate and silence these protests. 


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