Minneapolis police used geofence warrant at George Floyd protests

TechCrunch has learned that it received a search warrant, ordering Google to set up account data against vandals for allegedly spreading police violence over the murder of George Floyd last year.
The death of Krishna Floyd, killed by a white police officer in May 2020, prompted thousands of people to protest peacefully across the city. Soon after the outbreak of violence, which police say a masked man started using an umbrella to break the windows of an auto parts store in South Minneapolis in a viral video, the AutoZone store was the first of dozens of buildings across the city in the following days. When the violence erupted on May 27, two days after Floyd’s death, the search warrant forced Google to provide data on anyone’s account “within the geographical area” of the AutoZone store. 

These so-called geofence warrants – or reverse location warrants – are often pointed to Google in large part because search and advertising giants collect and store the geolocation databases of billions of account holders running “location history”. Geofence warrants allow police to throw digital dragonets at a crime scene and seek records against technology companies entering a geographic area at any given time. However, critics say the warrants are unconstitutional because they also collect information on the accounts of innocent pedestrians.

Minneapolis police used geofence warrant at George Floyd protests

Said Abdullahi, a resident of TechCrunch Minneapolis, who TechCrunch an email from Google subject to a warrant for his account information and learned of the search warrant, said it would hand over to police. Abdullahi, however, said he had no part in the violence and was on video of the protest when the violence started from the AutoZone store. The warrant states that between 5:20 pm and 5:40 pm (CST) on May 27, the police asked Google for “anonymous” account data on a phone or device near the AutoZone store and parking lot, where dozens of people gathered. Upon arrival, Minneapolis Police Spokesman John Elder will not answer specific questions about the warrant, including the reasons for the warrant, citing an ongoing investigation. A police affidavit, police said that until two in the afternoon on May 27, protests were relatively peaceful, while a mask is located across the street from the umbrella-driven person limit Minneapolis police began AutoZone store windows where a few hundred protesters robbed. In several videos gathered, protesters confronted with masks. Police say they have spent significant resources trying to identify so-called “umbrella people,” who they say are catalysts for widespread violence across the city.

The affidavit reads, “This is the first fire that caused fires and looting throughout the city and throughout the city.” At least two people killed in the unrest. (Minneapolis Police Investigator Erica Christensen, who filed the affidavit, was not available for interview.) 

Police have accused Umbrella Man of creating an “environment of hostility and tension” with the sole aim of “inciting violence”. (TechCrunch is not linking to the affidavit because police will not say whether the suspect charged with a crime.) The affidavit also linked the suspect to a white hegemonic group called the Aryan Cow, and a few weeks later where a Muslim woman was harassed.
Multiple videos of demonstrations around the time listed in the warrant correspond to the window-chat incident. Other videos of the scene show hundreds of people in the vicinity while taking the warrant. Police were on the roof and used tear gas and rubber bullets to control the crowd.

Law enforcement in all of the United States is increasingly relying on geofence warrants to solve crimes where no suspects known. Police have defended the use of these warrants because they can help identify a potential suspect who entered a specific geographic area where a crime was committed. Warrants usually ask for “anonymous information”, but allow the police to go back and narrow down their requests on potential suspects of interest.

If authorized by law, Google notifies account holders when law enforcement claims access to user data. According to a 2019 lawsuit filed by Google, the number of geofence warrants it has received has increased by 1,500% between 2017 and 2018 and more than 500% between 2018 and 2019, but it has not yet been able to issue a specified amount of warrants.