Geolocation Data, Geofencing Warrants, and Crime

Mark Altaweel


With most adults carrying mobile devices that have GPS tracking capabilities, mapping our movements has never been easier. This also means that we are making it much easier for the authorities to track our movements. This can be a good thing, if say criminal activity has occurred and those criminals had mobile phones on them. However, it can also lead to problems and even privacy concerns for those of us who may not have done anything wrong. 

On the one hand, certain crimes have become easier to detect, even crimes that were traditionally hidden or hard to find, because so many of us now carry mobile phones. For instance, prostitution in many areas is a type of crime that is essentially hidden from public view. However, applications such as integrating natural language processing, to assess elevated discussion around this crime on social media sites, and hot spot mapping that displays areas where increased patterns of discussion affiliated with prostitution are occurring have been shown to be remarkably effective .[1] 

New research has also looked at how wearable devices, which have GPS capabilities, can be used to automatically detect elevated stress or other higher physical measures to determine higher likelihood of crime. For instance, a bank robbery could cause people to feel greater stress. Wearable devices could be used to detected increased blood pressure or stress levels, where this wider patterns among multiple people could then demonstrate a stress event such as a crime is likely to occur. Wearables could be used as a type of silent information provider for authorities.[2]

Using Geofencing Warrants To Collection Geolocation Data

While these new developments may mean we are getting better at detecting crime, as both new devices and spatial approaches to detecting crime improve, we are increasingly faced with the dilemma of sharing our data and that data becoming either improperly used or even used against us. One recent example of the problems that shared spatial data creates involved an individual who was near a home burglary. The individual simply had been cycling nearby during the robbery and this led Google to share his data to the police after it was requested using what is called a geofencing warrant. (Google maintains a database of geolocation data from its users called Sensorvault) The patterns of the data indicated that the individual circled around the home that was robbed several times at about the time of the event. The person was eventually cleared, but it made evident the fact that police warrants based on georeferenced data from devices is now a real possibility. This could potentially violate constitutional protections, such as unreasonable searches and seizure, although police have stated they will only obtain such warrants when data suggest possible criminal involvement is possible rather than for anyone who happens to be near a criminal event.[3]

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Image adapted from mohamed_hassan and MashiroMomo, Pixabay

In Europe, data protection (GDPR) laws have been enacted that prevent companies from easily sharing your geolocated data to third parties. On the other hand, in the United States clear legislation does not exist, making it possible to share almost any type of data once users sign up to use applications given by companies, including the major technology companies. In an article given by the American Bar Association, the biggest concern is how third-party entities may access your data. For instance, both anonymous and non-anonymized data could be shared, including location data, with other companies or parties. That information could be sold. It is even possible, for instance if that information is leaked or sold to a third-party that may conduct criminal activity, to have that data turned against you, making it easier to conduct crime. In effect, tools that may facilitate crime prevention may also be turned around and used by criminals who exploit clear data sharing guidelines.[4]

What research has highlighted is that georeferenced data can be a great tool to help prevent or even limit crime. However, like so many other things, what can benefit us can also be turned against us. Already some cases highlight the possibility that the innocent are arrested or falsely accused of crimes due to geolocation data being shared. Additionally, legislation does not adequately protect consumers in the United States, or at least regulation on geolocation is still not well regulated in terms of how companies that control these data use them. This means there is still a lot to do in improving laws and the way in which crime fighting measures are incorporated with georeferenced data increasingly being shared by our greater use of mobile devices.   


[1]    For more information on using natural processing with spatial approaches in detecting prostitution, see:  Helderop, E., Huff, J., Morstatter, F., Grubesic, A., Wallace, D., 2019. Hidden in Plain Sight: A Machine Learning Approach for Detecting Prostitution Activity in Phoenix, Arizona. Appl. Spatial Analysis 12, 941–963.

[2]    For more on wearables and how they could be used, along with other mobile devices, for detecting crime, see:  Yu, M., Bambacus, M., Cervone, G., Clarke, K., Duffy, D., Huang, Q., Li, J., Li, W., Li, Z., Liu, Q., Resch, B., Yang, J., Yang, C., 2020. Spatiotemporal event detection: a review. International Journal of Digital Earth 1–27.

[3]    For more on how georeferenced data have been used in a case of mistaken suspicion in a crime, see:

[4]    For ore on data protection recommendations and problems in existing US law, see:

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.