PPSA has often covered abuses of the geolocation tracking common to cellphones – from local governments in California spying on church-goers, to “warrant factories” in Virginia in which police obtain hundreds of warrants for thousands of surveillance days, often for minor infractions.
Geolocation tracking can be among the most pernicious compromises of personal privacy. In Carpenter v. United States (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court held that warrants are needed to inspect cellphone records extracted from cell-site towers, recognizing just how personal a target’s movements can be.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on comings and goings, they [new technologies] are ever alert, and memory is nearly infallible.” The narrowness of Carpenter has not, however, prevented the FBI and other federal agencies from tracking people’s movements without a warrant by merely buying their data from third-party data brokers.
The FBI may soon, however, have much less to buy.
Orin Kerr, writing in the Volokh Conspiracy in Reason, informs us that “Google will no longer keep location history even for the users who opted to have it turned on. Instead, the location history will only be kept on the user’s phones.” Kerr adds: “If Google doesn’t keep the records, Google will have no records to turn over.”
A corporate decision in Silicon Valley has thus removed a major pillar of government surveillance. It says something about the current state of this country when a Big Tech giant is more responsive to consumers than government is to its citizens. But don’t be surprised if the feds start to pressure Google to reverse its decision.