Google, Microsoft and Yahoo back New York ban on controversial search warrants

A coalition of tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, have pledged support for a New York bill that would ban the use of controversial search warrants that can identify people based on their location data and internet search keywords.

In a brief statement, the coalition known as Reform Government Surveillance said it “supports the adoption of New York Assembly Bill A84A, the Reverse Location Search Prohibition Act, which would prohibit the use of reverse location and reverse keyword searches.”

The bill, if passed, would become the first state law to ban so-called geofence warrants and keyword search warrants, which rely on demanding tech companies turn over data about users who were near the scene of a crime or searched for particular keywords at a specific point in time. But the bill hasn’t moved since it was referred to a committee for discussion in January, the first major hurdle before it can be considered for a floor vote.

Reform Government Surveillance was set up in 2013 by several Silicon Valley tech companies to lobby lawmakers for reforms to U.S. surveillance laws following the leak of classified documents by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The coalition is now at 11 members — Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, Evernote, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Snap, Twitter, Yahoo (which owns TechCrunch) and Zoom.

The move by the tech coalition to back the New York bill is not entirely altruistic. At least three of RGS’ members — Google, Microsoft and Yahoo — are frequently tapped by law enforcement for location data and search records of users because of the vast amount of data they store on billions of users around the world. Last year Google said that about one-quarter of all its U.S. legal demands are geofence warrants, a figure that’s growing exponentially each year.

Geofence warrants are requested by law enforcement and signed by a judge to order companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, which collect and store billions of location data points from its users’ phones and apps, to turn over location data on phones that were in a certain geographic area at a certain time to help identify suspects. Keyword search warrants work in a similar way, except a judge orders a search giant like Google to turn over user records of who searched for certain keywords during a particular moment in time.

Critics say these kinds of warrants are unconstitutional and can include data on individuals with no connection to a crime whatsoever, and in some cases can be accused of wrongdoing simply by being physically close to the scene of a crime.

The ACLU, which supports the passage of the bill, told TechCrunch that it has seen thousands of people call on state lawmakers to pass the bill into law after launching an email campaign last week.