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Court finds geofence warrants to be unconstitutional

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As far as potential privacy violations at the hands of law enforcement go, the so-called geofencing stands out.

It’s a dragnet-style type of mass surveillance that determines a geographical area (typically as a criminal investigation is in progress – but the authorities really could use it for anything) – and then all those who happened to be in those confines, at a given time, with their mobile device broadcasting their location and other personal data, are basically fair game for searches.

Concerning and extremely sketchy – particularly without proper legal safeguards or even proper warrants – to say the least. And to say the most, straight up unconstitutional, on account of the Fourth Amendment (protecting from unlawful searches).

The latter definition of the practice is what the California Court of Appeals has gone for when it recently ruled in the People v. Meza case, during the appeals stage of the proceedings.

While it might sound logical to observers, the court’s decision is still very significant – digital rights group EFF says – because it set a precedent, being the first time a US appellate court looked into a geofence warrant.

“Dragnet” means that instead of saying who the suspect is and going after them, their online accounts, etc., law enforcement agencies have reportedly been taking it upon themselves to go the easiest route – not to put too fine a point on it, but just “digitally round up everyone” – and then decide if any of these people were involved in a crime.

According to EFF – thanks to this vast, to say the least, database of everyone’s location – it is mostly Google who is asked to go through that data to identify users in a “geofence” delimited by law enforcement.

The Court of Appeal had problems with all this. But all is not as good as it might seem.

In the case at hand, the court found that the warrant that was operated under did not succeed in placing “any meaningful restriction on the discretion of law enforcement officers to determine which accounts would be subject to further scrutiny or deanonymization.”

The court was also not happy, to say the least, that people could be identified “within six large search areas without any particularized probable cause as to each person or their location.”

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