Minneapolis law enforcement used Google location data to help track down suspects accused of inciting violence during protests of the police killing of George Floyd last May, according to a weekend TechCrunch report.
International protests against police brutality erupted following the death of Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck to restrain him after responding to a report of a counterfeit $20. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the incident took place, demonstrations remained largely peaceful across the city until a masked man used an umbrella to smash the windows of an AutoZone auto parts store, as captured in a viral video. The AutoZone became one of among a dozen buildings to be set ablaze in the dayslong rioting and looting that followed. Police later said the man is suspected of having ties to a white supremacist group and was attempting to spark racial tension and violence that day.
Per the outlet, police served Google a so-called geofence warrant, or reverse-location warrant, compelling the company to hand over “anonymized” account data for any device that was “within the geographical region” of the AutoZone during a 20-minute span when the violence reportedly began on May 27. The Minneapolis police department declined the outlet’s request for comment, citing an ongoing investigation. In a police affidavit, authorities said they spent “significant resources” trying to track down the so-called “Umbrella Man” whose actions they claimed set off a chain reaction that led to violent unrest across the city. At least two people died in the protests.
“This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city,” the affidavit said per TechCrunch.
Minneapolis resident Said Abdullahi alerted TechCrunch of the warrant after he claimed to receive an email from Google stating that his account information would be handed over to the police to comply with their search warrant. Abdullahi told the outlet he had no part in the violence and was just a bystander recording video of the protests near the store when it began. Google did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but we’ll update this blog once they do.
Abdullahi’s claims underline a larger, prevailing concern with law enforcement’s geofence data requests: Lawmakers and advocates maintain that they cast too wide a net and can implicate completely innocent passers-by. Critics also argue these warrants can circumvent privacy law in certain states as well as violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. And, as with most technological innovations, legislation has lagged dangerously behind the latest surveillance methods, putting geofence warrants in a legal gray area that some states are only just now beginning to address. Until then, cops are free to keep data-hoovering anyone who just happens to be in an area when a crime is committed, which is understandably alarming for activists worried that they may be targeted simply for exercising their right to peacefully protest.