While Congress is locked in spirited debate over the limits of surveillance in America, large technology companies are responding to growing consumer concerns about privacy by reducing government’s warrantless access to data.
For years, police had a free hand in requesting from Google the location histories of groups of people in a given vicinity recorded on Google Maps. Last month, Google altered the Location History feature on Google Maps. For users who enable this feature to track where they’ve been, their location histories will now be saved on their smartphone or other devices, not on Google servers. As a result of this change, Google will be unable to respond to geofenced warrants.
“Your location information is personal,” Google announced. “We’re committed to keeping it safe, private and in your control.”
This week, Amazon followed Google’s lead by disabling its Request for Access tool, a feature that facilitated requests from law enforcement to ask Ring camera owners to give up video of goings on in the neighborhood. We reported three years ago that Amazon had cooperative agreements with more than 2,000 police and fire departments to solicit Ring videos for neighborhood surveillance from customers.
By clicking off Request for Access, Amazon is now closing the channel for law enforcement to ask Ring customers to volunteer footage about their neighbors.
PPSA commends Google and Amazon for taking these steps. But they wouldn’t have made these changes if consumers weren’t clamoring for a restoration of the expectation of privacy. These changes are a sure sign that the mounting complaints of civil liberties advocates are moving the needle of public opinion. Corporations are exquisitely attuned to consumer attitudes, and so they are listening and acting.
In the wake of Thursday’s revelation that the National Security Agency is buying Americans’ location data, we urge Congress to show similar sensitivity. With polls showing that nearly four out of five Americans support strong surveillance reform, Congress should respond to public opinion by passing The Protect Liberty Act, which imposes a warrant requirement on all personal information purchased by government agencies.