Google announced changes to the way it harvests your location data this week that will finally put a stop to its compliance with geofence warrants, a police surveillance technique that many say circumvents the Constitution.
On Tuesday, the company published a blog post explaining that over the next year, Google Maps will stop sending data about your every move back to the mothership. Instead, Google Maps will keep the location data stored on your phone if you opt-in to the company’s tracking settings.
It’s a major step forward for privacy, especially because it will help keep location information, one of the most sensitive kinds of data collected for advertising, out of the hands of the government.
“Today’s announcement is a very reasonable and positive step towards minimizing how much data Google can collect on user locations and gives people control over their own information,” said Caitlin Seeley George Campaigns and Managing Director for the advocacy group Fight for the Future. “We know this isn’t perfect, and that Google still collects untold gobs of information about all of us. Ultimately we still need comprehensive federal data privacy legislation to address the issues with collection, retention, and sharing of our data. But this is definitely a good thing.”
For years, police and other law enforcement officials have served tech companies with so-called “geofence warrants,” requests for data about every single person who spent time in a particular area over a specified period. It used to be that the Constitution protected you from being searched by police unless you were suspected of a crime, but America’s surveillance-friendly courts have slowly eaten away at those rights. Google, Apple, Amazon, and countless other companies comply with geofence warrants, handing over information about thousands of innocent people at a time.
Historically, Google has been one of the biggest suppliers in the police location data pipeline. After the upcoming change, Google won’t have any location data to hand over, or at the very least, it will have far less.
It’s unclear, however, whether Google’s privacy update will change the company’s ability to harness location data for advertising, which raises additional concerns. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Google’s latest updates are a huge step in the fight against dystopian location tracking,” said David Siffert, Legal Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, in a press release. “But we can’t stop there. All tech firms currently collecting location data must follow suit and stop facilitating geofence warrants. And if lawmakers in New York truly want to protect reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare seekers, they must ban police use of geofence warrants immediately.”
Google has a troubled history with numerous multi-million dollar lawsuits over its handling of location information. Regulators started paying closer attention after research in 2018 found Google continued to harvest location data even after users turned off a Location History setting which seemed to imply it cut off the flow of data.
Concerns over Google’s location data spiked after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which gave states free rein to prosecute people for getting abortions, as location data could reveal visits to reproductive healthcare providers. Google responded with a feature that supposedly deleted data related to sensitive locations, a process that many advocates said would be impossible to automate effectively.