Civil rights groups demand data from Google on intrusive warrants

Advocates want to know exactly how many location- and keyword-based warrants Google is receiving and responding to each year.

Civil rights groups demand data from Google on intrusive warrants

In a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, civil liberties groups seek answers about geofence and keyword warrants.

Image: Protocol

More than 60 civil liberties groups sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai Tuesday, asking him to disclose the number of so-called geofence or keyword warrants Google receives every month. Unlike warrants specific to individuals, these warrants seek data on anyone in a certain location or who searched a certain term, techniques that privacy advocates argue are ripe for abuse. Last year, for example, the Manhattan district attorney demanded Google hand over information on any devices that were in a certain area on the Upper East Side when a fight broke out during protests against the far-right Proud Boys.

"These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance, creating a virtual dragnet of our religious practices, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and more," the letter reads. It was drafted by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and includes signatures from Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and dozens of other groups, who are asking Google to share data on geofence and keyword warrants in its regular transparency report.

According to figures Google has released in court filings, law enforcement has been flooding the company with these warrants in recent years. In a case brief filed regarding a man whose Google location data was used to tie him to a bank robbery, Google reported seeing a 1,500% spike in geofence warrant requests between 2017 and 2018, with another 500 percent spike between 2018 and 2019.

This summer, as lawmakers in New York pushed legislation that would prohibit the use of geofence warrants by police, Google's director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, told Protocol, "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."

But Google has yet to disclose proactively the number of warrants it receives in the same way it discloses statistics on U.S. national security requests and other demands. In the letter to Pichai, the groups say they're grateful for Google's disclosures in court, but they ask Google to do more to assist civil liberties groups in fighting back against these warrants. "As a leading recipient of geofence and keyword warrants, Google is uniquely situated to provide public oversight of these abusive practices," the letter reads. "By providing this semiannual breakdown of requests, tracking the growth of these abusive tactics over time, you'll provide us and other civil society organizations vital ammunition in the fight for privacy."

Here's the letter:

Dear Mr. Pichai,

We, the undersigned civil rights, labor, and civil society organizations, call on Google to aid us in opposing the alarming growth in law enforcement searches of Google user data. While law enforcement agencies have sought Google account data for years, we write in response to the increasing reports of novel warrants and other court orders that demand far more data than in the past.

This includes the use of so-called "geofence warrants," which compel disclosure of all devices in a geofenced area, and so-called "keyword warrants," which identify every user who searched for a specific keyword, phrase, or address. These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance, creating a virtual dragnet of our religious practices, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and more.

Reports indicate that Google has complied with an increasing number of these non-traditional warrants in recent years. For example, according to Google's submission in United States v. Chatrie, you received a 75-fold increase in geofence warrant requests from 2017 to 2019. This limited reporting has been indispensable in building public awareness about this unconstitutional surveillance tactic. While we are grateful that Google made the limited disclosures that it did in United States v. Chatrie, we urge you to do more.

As a leading recipient of geofence and keyword warrants, Google is uniquely situated to provide public oversight of these abusive practices. We ask you to do just that by expanding your industry- leading transparency report to provide monthly data on the number of non-traditional court orders received, including granular information on geofence warrants, keyword warrants, and any analogous requests. By providing this semiannual breakdown of requests, tracking the growth of these abusive tactics over time, you'll provide us and other civil society organizations vital ammunition in the fight for privacy.

We look forward to working with your staff on this matter. Please contact Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn with any questions, comments, or concerns.

S.T.O.P. - The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project
Access Now
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
Alternate ROOTS
Amnesty International - USA
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus
Brennan Center for Justice
Brooklyn Defender Services
California LGBT Arts Alliance
Center for Human Rights and Privacy
Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU Law
Community Alliance for Global Justice Council on American-Islamic Relations, New York (CAIR-NY)
Cypurr Collective
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress
Due Process Institute
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Emonyo Yefwe International
Empire State Indivisible
Encode Justice
Equal Justice Under Law
Ethics in Technology a 501 c 3
Fight for the Future
Freedom of the Press Foundation FreedomWorks
Government Accountability Project Hacking//Hustling
Islamophobia Studies Center
Legal Action Center
Media Alliance
National Coalition Against Censorship
New America's Open Technology Institute New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) New York County Defender Services Nicaragua Center for Community Action Northern New Jersey Jewish Voice for Peace Oakland Privacy
Occupy Bergen County (N.J.)
OCF @ U.C. Berkeley
PDX Privacy
Policing and Social Justice Project
Project South
Restore The Fourth
Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE)
Technology for Liberty Program, ACLU of Massachusetts
Tenth Amendment Center
The Bronx Defenders
The Calyx Institute
The Legal Aid Society of NYC
The Project On Government Oversight TKE
United Voices of Cortland
Urban Justice Center
Visionary V
Wolfson Cybersecurity Club

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