FBI used Google location data to investigate Seattle arson following BLM protest

Law enforcement agencies across the US have increasingly relied on geofence warrants.

David Ryder via Getty Images

In 2020, federal police used a geofence warrant to obtain location data from Google as part of an investigation into an attempted arson against a police union headquarters in Seattle, according to recently unsealed court documents posted by The Verge. The attempted arson took place on August 24th, one day after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin prompted a resurgence of racial justice protests across the US. Amid broader acts of civil disobedience in Seattle and parts of the country, two individuals threw makeshift firebombs at the rear entrance of the Seattle Police Officers Guild headquarters.

While the building itself wasn’t significantly damaged in the attack, the incident prompted a substantial police response. At one point, the FBI offered a $20,000 reward for any information related to the attempted arson. Court documents show the agency also pressed Google for information on the two suspects. The FBI used a geofence warrant to obtain location data from Android devices that were in the vicinity of the attempted arson before and after it occurred. Google complied with the request one day later.

“As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” a Google spokesperson told the outlet. We've reached out to the company for more information.

As The Verge points out, the fact the FBI later made a public appeal for help in the case suggests any location data obtained from Google may have not helped it get any closer to finding the two suspects.

Police use of location data is nothing new, but there’s been a substantial increase in the number of geofence warrants issued in recent years. In 2019, The New York Times found Google was fielding “as many as 180 requests” per week. More recently, the company disclosed it received 11,033 geofence requests in 2020, up from 941 in 2018. At the time, Google noted geofence warrants made up 25 percent of all data requests it received from law enforcement. What’s more, often the information of innocent bystanders is shared with police when companies like Google comply with those warrants, as was the case of a cyclist who rode by the site of a 2022 burglary in Florida and again in a protest following the death of George Floyd