Did a Typo Violate Your Privacy?

It is common practice for police enforcement to pursue every possible lead while investigating a possible crime. A geofence warrant is one possible option; this type of warrant asks a service provider to look through their users’ location data and identify everyone who may have been in a certain area at a certain time. Because they endanger innocent individuals, civil rights advocates say these are overbroad and violate the constitution. Here we are using a single “suspected typo” to illustrate the point.

One of many San Francisco geofence warrants examined by the ACLU of Northern California earlier this month drew the attention of the group. One “that apparently contained an alarming error,” most likely a misspelling, was pointed out by Jake Snow in his blog post on January 7. The warrant requested data within a two-mile radius rather than a specific location.

Within this confinement, one could find a multitude of private residences and a number of notable structures, such as the State of California Building, the United Nations Building, the Rosa Parks Senior Center, and many more. With over 800,000 residents and innumerable visitors, it’s quite a bit of data to collect on so many individuals inside a two-mile radius in a large metropolis like San Francisco. “How many other mistakes exist in the thousands of requests received and granted by Google?” Snow asked in his observation of the mistake.

The issuing of geofence warrants, according to activists, violates the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans, which prohibit “unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.” Some contend that it’s permissible because of the Third Party Doctrine, which says that individuals give up their “reasonable expectation of privacy” when they knowingly and voluntarily share their personal information with other parties. This contentious matter is sure to reach the highest court in the land.

Towards the year’s end of 2023, Google made public its plans to revamp its data storage practices. Instead of storing location data on Google servers, the big tech corporation wants customers to be able to do it on their own devices. That would essentially remove Google’s ability to make a choice.




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