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Tech Giants Support Ban on Geofence and Reverse Keyword Warrants

by Anthony W. Accurso

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo issued a public statement via the trade organization, “Reform Government Surveillance,” supporting a bill before the New York State legislature that would prohibit the use of geofence and reverse keyword warrants. The bill, known as The Reverse Location Search Prohibition Act (Assembly Bill A84A), would ban law enforcement use of two of the most invasive and constitutionally questionable warrant types in use today.

Geofence warrants allow police to select a geographic zone — a few blocks in a crowded city, for example — and require a company (usually Google) to produce data about all the users who were in that zone during a specified time — usually when a crime allegedly occurred.

Reverse keyword warrants involve a search company disclosing to police identifying information on all users who searched for a specific term or phrase — often the name or address of a crime victim.

Both warrant types are essentially fishing expeditions that return historically private information about persons who unwittingly disclose it and do so in apparent violation of the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment. However, because such warrants are often only used to identify possible suspects, and not to obtain actionable evidence for use in court, most people who are affected by such warrants are never apprised of their existence and thus never challenge them.

Police are becoming more reliant on such tools however, with such requests numbering in the hundreds of thousands each year, as Criminal Legal News has previously reported.

Lest anyone be fooled by the sudden apparent benevolence of these tech giants who are supporting this legislation, understand that it makes business sense for them to do so. Processing such warrants provides no additional income, yet compliance is required by law. And, if current trends continue, the costs involved with responding to these requests will spiral out of control.

The reason that law enforcement is requesting such data is because companies are collecting it. It’s kind of like complaining when an army of Pooh Bears raids your house after you told everyone you had the largest stockpile of honey in existence. Tech giants don’t really want to protect your privacy; they would stop collecting the data if that were the goal. Rather, they just want the police to stop asking them for it. It sounds as though they want to have their honey and eat it too. 


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