State News

Capitol Hill grilling of tech CEOs highlights expansion of 'geofence warrants'

Posted July 29, 2020 5:44 p.m. EDT
Updated July 29, 2020 5:56 p.m. EDT

U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-North Dakota

— A North Dakota congressman Wednesday challenged a controversial investigative tactic used by law enforcement nationally – including in North Carolina – to demand location data from Google users who appear near the scene of a crime.

With so-called "geofence" or "reverse search" warrants, investigators can force Google to turn over detailed location history for any device that entered into a geographic area during a specific time. WRAL News first reported the Raleigh Police Department's use of the warrants in March 2018 in several high-profile cases, including murder and suspected arson. The practice has continued locally since then, and subsequent reporting by The New York Times and other news organizations have identified the spread the technique across the country.

The Raleigh Police Department says it balances constitutional privacy protections by requesting anonymized data in the early stages of the warrant request process, which detectives use only sparingly.

But privacy advocates have expressed serious concerns over the warrants, which are now facing challenges in criminal courts nationwide.

"The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause and specificity – and that's not what these are," Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-North Dakota, told a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee Wednesday. "These warrants are essentially for any person in an area at a particular time."

Armstrong's comments came near the second hour of the subcommittee's grilling of the powerful tech CEOs from Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple as U.S. lawmakers wrap up a yearlong antitrust investigation into the digital giants.

Unless they include specific information identifying a subject, he said, "geowarrants are essentially general warrants."

"I think people would be terrified to know that law enforcement could grab general warrants and get everybody's information anywhere," Armstrong said. "So it requires Congress to act. It requires everybody that is a witness in this hearing to be willing to work too, because it is the single most important issue I think we are going to face."

In a question directed at Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Armstrong asked if he agreed that location information falls under the protections of the federal Stored Communications Act (such a designation would not exempt location data from search warrants).

Pichai didn't answer directly, but noted it was an issue "we deeply care about."

"This is why we issue transparency reports, because we think it's an important area for Congress to have oversight," Pichai said.

Pichai noted that the company now automatically deletes certain location activity after 18 months by default for new users, a change announced just last month.

CORRECTION: A previously version of this story inaccurately reported that Rep. Kelly Armstrong's comments came in the fourth hour of the hearing. They came near the second hour.

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