Minneapolis Police Obtained Warrant From Google To Identify George Floyd Protesters
Police in Minneapolis ordered Google to hand over location data to help identify people involved in protests against George Floyd’s death last May.
According to TechCrunch, the police obtained a warrant asking Google to provide account data for anyone who was near an auto-parts store in south Minneapolis that was set on fire by protestors as violence erupted in the city. The order – known as a geofence warrant – required Google to give the police access to anonymised records from its location history database relating to anyone who was ‘within the geographical region’ of the AutoZone store on May 27 around the time that the store was first vandalised.
The warrant was granted as part of an investigation into the identity of a masked vandal referred to as ‘Umbrella Man,’ who video footage pinpoints as the first person to begin the violence that eventually spread across the city and later the entire country. ‘Umbrella Man’ was confronted by other protestors after he began smashing up AutoZone’s windows, and is accused of intentionally trying to create an ‘atmosphere of hostility and tension’. After identifying the man in July, police reported that they believed he had ties to White supremacist groups, and may have infiltrated the protests in order to stir up violence.
Geofence warrants are becoming an increasingly common tool employed by police to identify potential suspects based on their phone’s location data. As one of the most common subjects of these warrants, Google told a court in 2019 that number of geofence warrants issued to them by law enforcement has shot up in recent years, with an increase of 1,500% between 2017 and 2018, and more than 500% between 2018 and 2019.
Police say that location data is necessary when they have no other leads on a suspect, but the warrants have also raised growing concerns among privacy rights advocates who argue that innocent passers-by and bystanders are unconstitutionally targeted by the practice. Said Abdullah, a Minneapolis resident who was in the area at the time to film the protests, said that he had received an email from Google telling him that it was giving the police his location data, despite the fact that there was no other evidence to suggest that he had been involved in the violence.
It’s not clear how many of these geofencing warrants have been served as part of investigations attempting to identify largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. In a letter to Google sent in December, the American Civil Liberties Union urged the tech giant to be transparent about the number of requests it was complying with, arguing that the increasing use of the warrants ‘circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance’.
Apple has also faced increasing pressure from law enforcement to provide access to its customers’ data, and over the past few years has been involved in a number of disputes with the FBI and Department of Justice for refusing to unlock iPhones belonging to the perpetrators of mass shootings.
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