Skip to main content

Bonta bill would bar “geofence” warrants

Brian Joseph, Capitol Weekly


It sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel: Government agents tracking people who search the web for abortion services or gender-affirming care.

But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade and red states’ growing opposition to certain kinds of healthcare services for transgender individuals, many on the left are worried about such “dragnet digital surveillance” and the kind of chilling effect they could have on vulnerable populations.

This led Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, to introduce Assembly Bill 793, which seeks to bar tech companies from complying with new, controversial keyword search warrants that law enforcement agencies can use to reveal the sensitive online search results and/or geocoded locations of computer and smartphone users.

Such searches, known as “reverse warrants” or “geofence warrants” or “keyword warrants,” allow law enforcement agencies across the country to request the names and identities of people whose digital footprint – i.e. their search history and geolocations – shows that they’ve, say, been near a California abortion clinic or searched online for information about gender-affirming care.

These search warrants differ from traditional search warrants in that instead of targeting specific individuals, they let police start with a search term of interest or a location of interest and then identify users who searched for that term or were geocoded to that location during a particular period of time.

“With states across the country passing anti-abortion and anti-trans legislation, it’s vital that California shore up our protections against digital tracking of vulnerable people seeking healthcare,” Bonta said in a press release about the bill’s introduction. “This legislation will put a stop to unconstitutional ‘reverse warrants’ – preserving our digital privacy and protecting Californians’ right to live life on our own terms.”

Already supported by more than 25 reproductive justice, civil liberties and privacy groups, including the ACLU, If/When/How and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AB 793 attempts to protect individuals who could be targeted by law enforcement in other states for having an abortion in California or seeking reproductive or gender-affirming care within the state.

“As states across the country pass anti-abortion legislation, it’s vital that states like California do everything in their power to create protections against digital tracking,” said Myra Durán, senior policy advocate at the reproductive justice advocacy organization If/When/How, in the press release. “…No one should face or fear criminalization for their abortion or gender affirming care. Criminalization creates a detrimental life-long domino effect–people can lose their jobs, housing, custody of their children, immigration status, and community. When we decide to end our pregnancies, we should be able to do so with dignity, and without fear of being arrested, investigated, or jailed.”

In July, after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. WadePOLITICO reported that Google had received 5,764 “geofence” warrants from 2018 to 2020 from law enforcement agencies in 10 states that had banned abortion as of that month.

“Carrying a smartphone, using social media, and allowing apps to know our location has become a part of our daily routines,” said Becca Cramer-Mowder, legislative advocate at ACLU California Action, in the press release. “But it means that each of us has a vast data trail that is vulnerable to government abuse. Anti-abortion police and prosecutors have used digital data to criminalize people for their abortion long before Roe v. Wade was overturned, and law enforcement in other states have already abused reverse warrants to identify people protesting police violence. We need to put a stop to this type of dragnet surveillance.”

Bonta’s bill currently only features “intent” language – meaning that it does not delineate specific policies to prevent digital surveillance. But, assuming the bill gains momentum and support, which is likely in the Democrat-controlled legislature, it will over the ensuing weeks and months be filled out with more specifics.

“This is going to be really huge,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights group, which has made reverse warrants its top focus this year.

Cahn’s group worked on a similar piece of pending legislation in New York, Senate Bill 217, which seeks to ban the use of reverse warrants by making it illegal under New York law for someone to be searched solely because they were at a given location at a given time or searched online for particular words, phrases or websites.

Cahn said the New York legislation is important, but added that AB 793 could be even more influential because California is home to so many tech companies. The Golden State, he said, could, in theory, block all other states from trying to use reverse warrants in California if it made them illegal under state law.

“This is important in every state,” Cahn said of legislation blocking reverse warrants, “but it’s particularly important in California” because its home to Silicon Valley.