Power

New York lawmakers want to outlaw geofence warrants as protests grow

A new bill would prohibit police from forcing Google and other companies to hand over data about who was in a certain location at a certain time.

People at a protest holding up a sign with George Floyd's picture on it

Lawmakers in New York want to prohibit police from using reverse location searches to crack down on protesters.

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

As protests against police brutality swell in cities across America, lawmakers in New York state are gaining support — including from some tech giants — for a recently introduced bill that would prohibit police from using so-called geofence warrants, which compel companies like Google to give up reams of data on who was in a certain location at a certain time.

The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblyman Dan Quart, would be the first in the United States to bar police from seeking these warrants or from obtaining the data through voluntary means, like buying it from a data broker. The bill was introduced in April but is newly relevant as some fear this data could be used to crack down on protesters.

"It's easy to see how reverse search warrants can be used to target protesters and people engaged in legitimate First Amendment activities," Quart said. "I think the current environment is an opportunity to push this legislation."

Since the protests began, several new co-sponsors in both the state Senate and the Assembly have signed onto the bill. The legislation is also receiving some tepid support from Google, one of the tech companies whose compliance with these warrants has earned it notoriety. "We're encouraged to see lawmakers discussing legislation that acknowledges smartphones' crucial role in today's world and the need for rules to govern untargeted access to data by law enforcement," Google's director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado told Protocol.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone also said the company is "supportive" of the New York bill, adding that Facebook doesn't respond to these warrants.

The introduction of the bill comes as a high-stakes legal fight questioning the legality of these warrants is playing out in Virginia. But lawmakers and privacy advocates say protesters need protection from this type of surveillance quicker than courts can provide it.

"I think it's important for us to get statutes on the books as soon as possible because it's a timely issue," Myrie said. "This is potentially people's liberty at stake."

Geofence warrants are a relatively new but rapidly expanding phenomenon. Rather than issuing a warrant for data on a specific individual, these warrants seek information on all of the devices in a given area at a given time. Between 2017 and 2018, Google saw a 1,500% increase in geofence requests. Between 2018 and 2019, that figure shot up another 500%. That's according to a brief Google filed in Virginia, where a man named Okello Chatrie is currently challenging the use of Google location data to connect him with a bank robbery.

In a New York Times investigation last year, one Google employee said the company received as many as 180 geofence requests in a week. Google wouldn't comment to Protocol on the number of requests it received. The Times' story focused on an Arizona man who was arrested for a murder he didn't commit after police obtained his location data from Google. It drew widespread attention to Google's SensorVault database, which holds location data from hundreds of millions of devices that have Google's location history setting turned on.

When Google receives such a warrant, it supplies law enforcement with anonymized information on devices in the area. Once law enforcement determines which devices it deems relevant, Google will supply more granular information like, say, the Gmail name associated with the device.

"We will only produce Location History data if served with a search warrant," Google spokesperson Aaron Stein said. "We have not complied — and have litigated against — reverse [location history] requests without a search warrant."

Google's SensorVault system has attracted by far the most attention, including from Congress, but it's hardly the only company whose troves of location data police and government agents might like to mine. In at least one case in New York City, an investigator for the Manhattan district attorney testified that he sent location data requests to Uber, Lyft, Snapchat and Apple, too. In that case, the DA's office was seeking to identify four people allegedly associated with the far-left group Antifa who had clashed with members of the far-right group Proud Boys outside an event in October 2018.

According to the investigator, those requests weren't successful. But the fact that the Manhattan DA had undertaken such a search to try to identify protesters alarmed privacy advocates and lawmakers alike.

"It really makes a mockery of the Fourth Amendment," said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, which opposes police surveillance. "After seeing the scope of the abuse in that case and researching the practice more broadly, it was clear to us it was necessary to outlaw this type of search."

Cahn's organization began working with Quart, whose district includes the location of the Proud Boys incident. Along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys's Fourth Amendment Center and Myrie, they began drafting legislation.

In April of this year, they introduced the bill, in part, as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, which was already opening the door to new forms of location tracking to assist in contact-tracing efforts. "I thought it was important to not have this pandemic be the source of data collection that could adversely impact a lot of people in the community," Myrie, who represents a predominantly Black district in Brooklyn, said. The Black Lives Matter protests, he said, have only added to the urgency of the legislation.

In addition to prohibiting geofence warrants, the bill also bars "voluntary reverse location requests," in which police get access to location data from data brokers and other companies without a warrant. "We know there's a huge marketplace for all of our data and so many firms that would be eager to provide this data if they're getting paid for it," Cahn said. Last year, VICE revealed that T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T were selling real-time location data to bounty hunters and other data brokers.

While data brokers may not love getting cut off from a potential revenue source, it's easy to imagine why tech companies would support a bill like this. Complying with these warrants is not only technically arduous, but it also opens tech companies up to accusations of aiding unjust policing practices at a time when the public is pressuring tech giants to cut ties with police.

Last year, the tech industry association CompTIA opposed a bill in Texas that would have specified that geofence warrants were legal in the state. And in its amicus brief in the Virginia bank robbery case, Google called these warrants "broad and intrusive." But the company spokesperson wouldn't say whether Google has ever fought back against them.

Mark Rumold, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues they should. "They can and should contest the validity of the warrant," he said. "If they have done this and lost, they should make that public."

The bill in New York is still relatively new and is likely to face substantial opposition from the law enforcement lobby. It's also competing with a laundry list of other priorities for the legislature, which is still grappling with the devastating toll COVID-19 has taken on the state. But in recent weeks, New York's legislature has passed several substantial policing reforms, including a measure to ban chokeholds and repeal a law that kept police misconduct records secret. Myrie said he's "cautiously optimistic" that momentum could help fast-track this legislation.

"The crowds are not waning. They're growing," Myrie said of the protests. "The pressure legislators are feeling from the people on the ground has shattered what the political norms would be."

Podcasts

1Password's CEO is ready for a password-free future

Fresh off a $620 million raise, 1Password CEO Jeff Shiner talks about the future of passwords.

1Password is a password manager, but it has plans to be even more.

Business is booming for 1Password. The company just announced it has raised $620 million, at a valuation of $6.8 billion, from a roster of A-list celebrities and well-known venture capitalists.

But what does a password manager need with $620 million? Jeff Shiner, 1Password’s CEO, has some plans. He’s building the team fast — 1Password has tripled in size in the last two years, up to 500 employees, and plans to double again this year — while also expanding the vision of what a password manager can do. 1Password has long been a consumer-first product, but the biggest opportunity lies in bringing the company’s knowhow, its user experience, and its security chops into the business world. 1Password already has more than 100,000 business customers, and it plans to expand fast.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
Policy

Biden wants to digitize the government. Can these techies deliver?

A December executive order requires federal agencies to overhaul clunky systems. Meet the team trying to make that happen.

The dramatic uptick in people relying on government services, combined with the move to remote work, rendered inconvenient government processes downright painful.

Photo: Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Early last year, top White House officials embarked on a fact-finding mission with technical leaders inside government agencies. They wanted to know the answer to a specific question: If there was anything federal agencies could do to improve the average American’s experience interacting with the government, what would it be?

The list, of course, was a long one.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

5 takeaways from Microsoft's Activision Blizzard acquisition

Microsoft just bought one of the world’s largest third-party game publishers. What now?

The nearly $70 billion acquisition gives Microsoft access to some of the most valuable brands in gaming.

Image: Microsoft Gaming

Just one week after Take-Two took the crown for biggest-ever industry acquisition, Microsoft strolled in Tuesday morning and dropped arguably the most monumental gaming news bombshell in years with its purchase of Activision Blizzard. The deal, at nearly $70 billion in all cash, dwarfs Take-Two’s purchase of Zynga, and it stands to reshape gaming as we know it.

The deal raises a number of pressing questions about the future of Activision Blizzard’s workplace culture issues, exclusivity in the game industry and whether such massive consolidation may trigger a regulatory response. None of these may be easily answered anytime soon, as the deal could take up to 18 months to close. But the question marks hanging over Activision Blizzard will loom large in the industry for the foreseeable future as Microsoft navigates its new role as one of the three largest game makers on the planet.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Enterprise

Why AMD is waiting for China to approve its $35B bid for Xilinx

There’s another big chip deal in regulatory limbo. AMD’s $35 billion bid for Xilinx, which would transform its data-center business, is being held up by China.

AMD announced a $35 billion bid to acquire Xilinx more than a year ago.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

AMD has spent its entire corporate life as a second-class citizen to Intel. That’s just one reason why CEO Lisa Su seized an opportunity with a $35 billion stock deal to snap up programmable chipmaker Xilinx more than a year ago at one of Intel’s weakest moments in decades.

The full extent of a manufacturing stumble that delayed Intel's next-generation chips six months became apparent in 2020, to Su and AMD's considerable advantage. AMD’s share price soared as it became clear the longtime also-ran stood to gain significant market share, granting Su a considerably more valuable currency for acquisitions such as Xilinx, which makes chips for data center networking, cars, military use and satellites.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a Technology Reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

Latest Stories
Bulletins