YOU MIGHT not know geofencing, but it knows you.
Geofencing is defined as a technology that draws a virtual line around a physical area so that a signal can be sent to a mobile electronic device, such as a cellphone, that has passed through that area.
If you’ve ever walked into a store, spoken to no one and then very shortly gotten an email or text from that store, you’re familiar with the practice if not the word.
Geofencing also is a law-enforcement tool, at least until and unless the courts decide otherwise.
Last year, a man robbed a bank in the Richmond suburbs of $195,000. A search warrant led to Google opening its cellphone accounts to focus on everyone near the bank at the time of the robbery. With a little sleuthing, the cops narrowed their search down to one man whose phone was inside the bank when it was being robbed. He was caught with $100,000 in cash, and he confessed.
End of the story? No. The man’s lawyers claim that the Google search violated the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens protection against unreasonable searches and guards our expectation to privacy.
His attorneys say finding the location of every cellphone in chose proximity to that bank is like searching every home in a neighborhood because of a nearby robbery. The federal court in Richmond will decide whether they’re right.
Freeing a man—who pretty obviously did the crime—on a technicality would be a hard pill to swallow. However, the way he was caught is problematic.
If you have an Android phone or iPhone, and Location History is enabled (that’s the default position), the data from that phone is tracked and stored.
Many of us do not like the idea that our every move is being recorded. That seems invasive, not to say irritating.
It can go beyond irritating, though.
A man in Florida learned that police were seeking information on his Google account. He was coincidentally in the same area where a home was burglarized and was a suspect. He spent thousands of dollars clearing his name.
An Arizona man spent six days in jail after a geofence search showed him at a place where a crime was committed. Turns out, he’d given his old cellphone to another man, who did the deed.
New York state is considering a bill that would ban geofence warrants there. The federal ruling in Richmond will help determine their legality nationwide.
Geofencing is no doubt valuable in catching criminals, although it isn’t as sure-fire a tool as DNA. The amount of privacy every citizen gives up seems like a high price to pay for making crime prevention a little easier.
If the police came knocking on your door, demanding to search your house because somebody on your block committed a crime, you would likely feel violated. Geofencing is like that, except you don’t even know you’re being searched. In some ways, that makes it even scarier.