Geofencing and Investigatory Datasheds

There’s a lot to write about “geofencing” as a law enforcement practice, but, for now, I’ll just link to this piece in the New York Times about the use of device-tracking in criminal investigations.

There, we read about something called Sensorvault: “Sensorvault, according to Google employees, includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.”

To access Sensorvault, members of law enforcement can use a “geofence warrant.” This is a hybrid digital/geographic search warrant that will “specify an area and a time period” for which “Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information.”

In other words, you can isolate a specific private yard, public park, city street, or even several residential blocks during a particular period of time, then—with the right warrant—every device found within or crossing through that window can be revealed.

To a certain extent, the notion of a “crime scene” has thus been digitally expanded, taking on a kind of data shadow, as someone simply driving down a street or sitting in a park one day with their phone out is now within the official dataprint of an investigation. Or perhaps datashed—as in watershed—is a better metaphor.

But this, of course, is where things get strange, from both a political and a narrative point of view. Political, because why not just issue a permanent, standing geofence warrant for certain parts of the city in order to track entire targeted populations, whether they’re a demographic group or members of a political opposition? And narrative, because how does this change what it means to witness something, to overhear something, to be privy to something, to be an accomplice or unwilling participant? And is it you or your device that will be able to recount what really occurred?

From a narrative point of view, in other words, anyone whose phone was within the datashed of an event becomes a witness or participant, a character, someone who an author—let alone an authority—now needs to track.

(For more thoughts on witnessing, narrative, and authors/authorities, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic last year that might be of interest.)

2 thoughts on “Geofencing and Investigatory Datasheds”

  1. I came across your quote from one of my poems “For the Missing in Action” and wanted to tell you that (not surprisingly) it was based on a real body, discovered not by me but by a Vietnamese war reporter traveling with the NVA. Anyway, I was interested to see your piece. And glad you liked Locusts at the Edge of Summer.

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