SACRAMENTO, Calif. (May 22, 2023) – Last Thursday, a third California Assembly Committee passed a bill that would ban geofence location tracking and reverse keyword search orders. The enactment of the legislation would not only protect privacy in California; it would also hinder the growth of the federal surveillance state.
Assm. Mia Bonta and three cosponsors introduced Assembly Bill 793 (AB793) in February. The legislation would prohibit any government entity from seeking, or any court from enforcing, assisting, or supporting, a reverse keyword or reverse location demand issued by a government entity or court in California or any other state. The bill would also prohibit a person or California entity from complying with a reverse keyword or reverse location demand. Any information gathered in violation of the law would be inadmissible in court.
On May 18, the Assembly Appropriation Committee passed AB793 by a 12-2 vote.
Reverse-location court orders and reverse keyword court orders enable police to obtain location data or technology search data without identifying any specific person for whom there is probable cause to believe they have committed or will imminently commit a crime. For instance, a reverse keyword search would allow police to pinpoint every individual you did a Google search for a specific keyword such as “assault rifle.”
In effect, the passage of AB793 would also prohibit a process called “geofencing.” This technique allows police to search broad geographical areas and identify every electronic device in the area. They can then take that data and determine the identity of individuals near a given place at a given time. In practice, police use Google location data to engage in massive fishing expeditions and subject hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people to police location tracking. According to the New York Times, federal agents first utilized the practice in 2016. According to the report, broadly construed geofencing warrants help police pinpoint possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues. Google employees said the company often responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMS
The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
Limiting information collected by state and local law enforcement agencies limits the amount of information that can flow into federal databases through fusion centers and the ISE.
AB793 will now move to the full Assembly for consideration.