How Google’s Surveillance Technology Endangers Communities of Color
The tech giant is promoting tools for Covid19 tracking that are often used to criminalize Black and Brown people, to make profits off of policing
By Abby Dennis, ACRE Research Intern
Public health experts agree that location tracking is an essential part of fighting COVID-19. This presents an opportunity for ever-expanding tech giants like Google and Apple, who are chomping at the bit to be the executors of increased surveillance in the name of public safety. However, Google has already proven that it can’t be trusted to wield our location data in a way that keeps people safe. Just ask Jorge Molina, who recently spent a week in jail for a murder he did not commit thanks to location data handed over to police by Google. Molina is not alone; over the past several years, more and more people, especially people of color, have been exposed to policing after Google released their intimate location data. Google’s collaboration with police around location data forewarns that any Google surveillance implemented under the guise of public health will likely end up putting communities of color in danger. The COVID-19 pandemic could mean that cities and states are more likely to adopt the use of these technologies without properly weighing the risks and impact on vulnerable communities.
The increase in Google’s collaboration with law enforcement is based on a new tool called a geofence warrant. Typical police warrants are issued in relation to a suspect, and officers must describe in particularity the place they will search and the items they will seize. However, geofence warrants operate as “reverse search warrants,” and sweep for potential leads by analyzing Google’s location history data of everyone who was in the vicinity around the time of a crime. After the initial search, Google also turns over identifying information about users that police are interested in, which can include names, addresses, subscriptions, browsing history, and broader location history data. Since there is no limit on how many users can be caught in a geofence search, the warrants can result in hundreds or thousands of people’s data from Google being turned over to cops, regardless of whether or not they were involved with a crime. If you have Google’s Location History feature turned on, your data could be given to police. Geofence warrants are expanding the limits of the Fourth Amendment’s Constitutional protections against “unreasonable search and seizure, using data and technical support from Google.
Although Google claims to make data collection on users transparent, they are far from forthcoming about how exactly they gather and use location data. Google describes their Location History feature as totally opt-in, but many signature features require it or use misleading prompts to encourage users to turn it on. When turning on location history, users consent to better traffic alerts or place-based restaurant recommendations. We aren’t signing up to give cops intimate details about where we’ve been. The intimate nature of Google’s location history has been a boon to policing, with cops describing its ability to “show the whole pattern of life” as a “game changer.” Privacy advocates have pointed this out as well, noting that the location history data often includes people’s movements in and out of private residences, religious spaces, medical facilities, or political meetings. There are no restrictions on how police can use all of this data once they have it, and thus no way to ensure that it is not weaponized against populations already targeted by the police.
By pushing users into the location history feature and then cooperating with police when they request location data, Google is facilitating a massive increase in policing that will be concentrated on Black and Brown communities and poor communities. Geofence warrants have increased by 500% over the last year, and there are already examples of the warrants being concentrated on hyper-policed communities. In Raleigh, North Carolina, one quarter of geofence warrants issued in 2019 were concentrated on Washington Terrace, a high-density affordable housing complex. The widest of the Washington Terrace warrants, written to fish for leads in a long-cold murder investigation, was the largest Raleigh police had ever written and the area specified had the highest density of Black residents. Law enforcement is also using geofence warrants to increase policing of non-violent crimes. They have been used to investigate robberies, arsons, theft of wallets, and even stolen tires. Getting caught up in a geofence warrant can have especially dangerous consequences for people of color and people who are low-income. When Molina was wrongly arrested, he lost his job, lost his car, and was forced to drop out of school.
Google is choosing to be complicit in this ramp-up of racist policing. They claim to respect user privacy, and they even claim to try to narrow the scope of some geofence warrants. However, they released data for over 85% of geofence warrants in the last two years and provide no evidence of pushing back on requests. Police have even called Google “really good to work with.” Google also recently announced they will begin charging law enforcement $245 per geofence warrant. While Google already used our location history data to generate ad revenue, now they will profit even more by literally selling our data out to the police. This is a sinister proposition, monetizing user data to the police with the same regard as marketing televisions and pop-tarts.
Google is pushing to increase surveillance under the guise of public health. However, this history of police collaboration shows that Google is much more concerned with extracting profit and using COVID-19 as an excuse to further cement itself into our carceral infrastructure. Without severe restrictions to protect privacy and keep tech companies accountable, we cannot trust corporations like Google to help keep us safe in the time of COVID. Throughout this pandemic and beyond, we ought to envision ways that Google and the critical technological infrastructure it provides could be controlled by communities, not leveraged for profit.
Abby Dennis is a research intern at ACRE focused on community control of tech. She is also a student at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies Union Semester Program studying workers’ rights and social justice.