Google will soon store Maps users’ location history locally on their devices instead of in the cloud, a big change that will make it more difficult for law enforcement to access the data.
Controversial “geofence warrants” allow law enforcement to gather tech companies’ data on mobile phones that have passed through a certain area during a specific time period. The FBI has used the warrant to collect information about a Black Lives Matters protest in Seattle as part of an investigation into attempted arson, for instance.
With privacy concerns and the potential for geofence warrants to turn anyone at the scene of an alleged crime a potential suspect, Google has faced pressure for years to change the way it stores users’ location history. With this update to Maps, which is expected to roll out over the next year, the tech giant seems to be finally doing something about it.
“Google made the move to explicitly bring an end to such dragnet location searches,” Forbes reports, citing a Google employee “who was not authorized to speak publicly.”
“We’re always working on ways to give people more control over their data,” Marlo McGriff, director of product at Google Maps, said in an emailed statement to The Verge. Google announced the changes in a blog post this week.
The change applies to the Timeline feature in Maps, which remembers locations where users have been previously. Location history is turned off by default, but for users who opt into turning it on, Google has typically stored that information in the cloud. That’s what made it possible for law enforcement to request data through geofence warrants. Now that location histories will be stored in users’ devices, Google will no longer have that aggregate data at hand to turn over to police or the FBI.
Google says that users will receive a notification on their when the update applies to their account. The change will take place gradually over the next year on both the Android and iOS versions of the Google Maps app. The company is also changing its auto-delete settings, which was previously set to 18 months by default. With this update, auto-delete will be set to three months by default. For anyone who wants to keep their location data when they get a new phone, since it’ll be saved locally, they can back that up to the cloud and Google will automatically encrypt it.
While any tech company might have to comply with a geofence warrant, Forbes reports that most of these warrants target Google. Democrats sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai last year calling on the company to “stop unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data,” specifically referencing 11,554 geofence warrants Google received in 2020. At the time, they were worried that the warrants could be used to target people visiting abortion clinics amid a legal crackdown on the procedure.