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Google praised for rollout of anti-tracking policy updates

Google has won praise from the Electronic Frontier Foundation after it issued a new set of policies and default settings for its Location History feature that could limit police overreach in surveillance and search

Google is getting praise from privacy advocates after a recent update to its location tracking policies.

Digital rights groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are lauding the Alphabet subsidiary for its recent decision to limit a location-logging feature that is seen as key in the execution of controversial police surveillance practices.

The feature in question, known as Location History, allows for location data over s set period of time to be logged and stored. The feature is disabled by default.

According to the EFF general counsel Jennifer Lynch, that location data is highly-sought after for use by police when performing what is known as 'geofencing' surveillance, a practice in which law enforcement obtains a warrant to collect complete location records for a specific device over a set period of time.

Digital rights groups have argued that the practice violates Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

"The only 'evidence' supporting a geofence warrant is that a crime occurred in a particular area, and the perpetrator likely carried a cell phone that shared location data with Google," Lynch explained.

"For this reason, they inevitably sweep up potentially hundreds of people who have no connection to the crime under investigation—and could turn each of those people into a suspect."

With its latest update, Google is said to have made a number of key changes that will limit the access and insight investigators would have into data logged by the feature.

Most notably, Location History will no longer be stored remotely in the Google cloud, but rather on the device itself. This means that police would not be able to serve the warrants to Google for a swath of device but rather obtain the warrant for specific devices.

Storage of data in backups will also be more secure. While users can still choose to upload location details to the cloud, it will be stored in an encrypted format that Google cannot access.

The third measure relates to how long Location History stores data. While the default setting previously kept details for 18 months, the latest update sets a three month default retention window, limiting the scope of time an investigator would potentially be able to access activity on a seized device.

The EFF hopes that the measures will not only undercut the ability of law enforcement to perform geofence warrants, but effectively end the practice as we know it.

"All of this is fantastic news for users, and we are cautiously optimistic that this will effectively mean the end of geofence warrants," lynch explained.

"These warrants are dangerous."