New Bill Could Stop New York Police From Using Keyword Search and Geofencing Warrants

New Bill Could Stop New York Police From Using Keyword Search and Geofencing Warrants
Photo: Chris Jackson, Getty Images

A proposed law in New York would cut down on law enforcement’s ability to use controversial surveillance tactics — including warrants that can clandestinely target you because of your search engine history or nab your location data without you knowing.

The Reverse Location Search Prohibition Act, which was recently re-introduced to the New York state assembly by a group of Democratic lawmakers, would ban police from making certain kinds of data requests to tech companies — specifically geofence and keyword search warrants. Such warrants, which are increasingly used by law enforcement in investigations, have notably riled privacy advocates. Critics argue that police are effectively skirting the Fourth Amendment — since such requests allow investigators to sift through personal data without notifying the affected party with a publicly served warrant.

The bill was originally introduced in 2019 but failed to make any headway. However, since its re-introduction, the legislation has progressed to committee — a sign that it could be gaining some traction. TechCrunch reports that, should it pass, it would be the first state law of its kind in the country.

For those who don’t know, geofence warrants (also known as “reverse location warrants”) are used by police to extract mobile location data from specific geographical regions. In other words, if the NYPD wants to know who was actively using an Android phone on the corner of 1st Avenue and 14th Street at 7 a.m. last Saturday, they could submit a request to a judge, who would then turn around and order Google to turn over all information concerning the people that happened to be in that area using Google products at the time. The company would then be obligated to draw a virtual “fence” around that street corner and could extract data about who was using a phone in the area at that time.

Such warrants have seen a steep rise in use over the past several years, according to Google itself. In a supplemental sheet to a transparency report published last year, the company revealed that it had seen an explosion of geofence requests during the 2018-2020 period — a majority of which came from state and local law enforcement. Indeed, the rate of requests rose from 982 requests in 2018 to over 11,000 in 2020, the sheet showed.

Keyword search warrants, meanwhile, are exactly what they sound like: Police can submit court-ordered requests to Google or other search engines to find out who has been searching for specific terms. In 2020, it was revealed that, in certain cases, federal authorities had been quietly issuing such warrants for anybody who looked up specific kinds of information. The warrants are known to have been used in numerous investigations between at least 2017 and 2020, according to Forbes.

It’s not just that there are serious privacy and civil liberties concerns here but evidence has also shown that these kinds of warrants can ultimately implicate innocent people. Such was the case with one Florida man, Zachary McCoy, who was suspected of having committed a string of burglaries merely because a geofence request showed he had been riding his bike in the area at the time.