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Dragnet Warrants are Trapping Innocent People

Reverse warrants have led to multiple disturbing incidents including false arrests.

dragnet warrants
By: Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications & Daniel Schwarz Senior Privacy & Technology Strategist, Policy

All of us have surely searched for something on the Internet. And we take our phones wherever we go.

But doing these everyday activities can put us under suspicion by law enforcement officers using specific types of digital dragnet warrants known as reverse warrants.

To keep police from invading our privacy and going on invasive fishing expeditions, warrants are supposed to be narrowly targeted, specific, and based on probable cause. But reverse location and keyword warrants request the disclosure of multiple people’s private information simply because they were at a particular place during a specific time frame, or because they entered certain keywords into a search engine.

These warrants can’t be targeted or specific because, by definition, they give law enforcement the power to obtain private records about numerous unknown people. They can place hundreds or thousands of unsuspecting and innocent people in the crosshairs of law enforcement, threatening their rights to be free from unreasonable government searches.

Reverse warrants have led to multiple disturbing incidents including false arrests, and they were even used at First Amendment-protected protests against police brutality, ensnaring protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Though their dangers are more apparent than ever, dragnet warrants are becoming more ubiquitous. In response to calls from a nationwide coalition of privacy and civil liberties groups – including the NYCLU – Google released information about reverse location warrant requests from law enforcement across the country from 2018-2020.

The report shows a staggering twelvefold increase over those three years, totaling 20,932 requests. The number of accounts implicated in each of these requests was not disclosed. But the requests could easily implicate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of user accounts and devices. That means potentially millions of innocent people came under law enforcement suspicion and had their location records searched for no good reason.

Given the omnipresent role that digital technologies play in all our lives, and the ever-more detailed data trails tech companies are collecting, it’s urgent that we ban these warrants. A bill we support in the state legislature would prohibit both reverse location and reverse keyword searches and warrants.

Our participation in digital life should not automatically open us up to pervasive police spying. That’s exactly why dragnet warrants must be outlawed.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union