The Orwellian use of ‘geofencing’ by government snoopers

Person is taking photo with a smartphone.


As worshippers gathered at the Calvary Chapel in 2020, they were being watched from above.  

Satellites were locking in on cell phones owned by members of the nondenominational Protestant church in San Jose, Calif. Their location eventually worked its way to a private company, which then sold the information to the government of Santa Clara County.

This data, along with observations from enforcement officers on the ground, was used to levy heavy fines against the church for violating Covid-19 restrictions regarding public gatherings.            

“Every Sunday,” Calvary’s assistant pastor, Carson Atherly, would later testify, the officers “would serve me a notice of violation during or after church service.”

Calvary is suing the county for its use of location data, a controversial tool increasingly deployed by governments at all levels – notably in relation to the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

While enabling law enforcement to more easily identify potential offenders, the practice, called “geofencing,” has also emerged as a cutting-edge privacy issue, raising constitutional issues involving warrantless searches and, with Calvary Chapel, religious liberty.

“We are in the space between the emergence of this technological practice and courts having ruled on its constitutionality,” said Alex Marthews, national chair for Restore the 4th, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans’ rights against “unreasonable search and seizure.” 

“Geofencing” often begins with an innocent click. Smartphone apps ask if they can access location to improve service. When users say they yes, they often don’t realize that the apps that help them drive, cook, or pray are likely reselling their information to far-flung for-profit entities. This and other information detailing people’s behaviors and preferences is valuable for businesses trying to target customers. The global location intelligence market was estimated at $16 billion last year, according to Grand View Research.

While it is legal for private companies to broker this information, constitutional questions arise when government accesses data from a third party that it would be prohibited from collecting on its own. The lawsuit filed by Calvary Chapel argues that Santa Clara County carried out a warrantless surveillance of the church when it acquired information in 2020 on the church’s foot-traffic patterns for analysis by a research team from Stanford University. Court documents show the researchers acquired the information, which originated with Google Maps, from the location data company SafeGraph, which Calvary is also suing. 

Geofencing allows users to build a fence around certain areas or points-of-interest such as Calvary Chapel or the area near the Capitol on Jan. 6 and see when people entered that space.

It is becoming routine for law enforcement agencies to use warrants to require companies like Google to hand over location data that may be connected to criminal activity. 

Rep. Jim Jordan recently wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland saying, “The use of geofence warrants raises serious Constitutional concerns.” Privacy advocates and a bipartisan group of legislators say that acquisition of such information without a warrant presents a troubling and relatively new constitutional dilemma.

Data brokers, including SafeGraph, insist that their information is anonymized. But it is precisely the lack of specificity that worries critics. “There’s no particular individual who the government is suspicious of,” Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told RealClearInvestigations. “It’s a dragnet.”

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the data collected through geofencing stays anonymous. “It is often very easy to take supposedly de-identified data and re-identify a person,” said Schwartz, “And it’s very, very easy to do that with location data.”

At Calvary Chapel, for example, in-person surveillance conducted by the county, as well as numerous in-person depositions of Chapel members and employees during the previous legal contretemps between the county and the church that began in 2020, would have provided local officials with detailed knowledge of who was on the premises, and when.

In any event, critics say, law enforcement’s use of geofencing – even when it is backed by a warrant – violates the Fourth Amendment.

Geofencing proponents argue that it falls under the “administrative search” exception to the Fourth Amendment, which lets regulatory enforcement personnel conduct warrantless searches when the greater good is at issue (i.e., police sobriety checkpoints, airport TSA scans).

In their complaint, Calvary Chapel attorneys assert that the county is arguing in effect “that, as long as they call it research, any level of government can target and spy on any individual or group at any time for any duration and, if they so choose, they can wield the collected data against said individuals or groups who oppose their orders.”

Pushback is mounting against the sharing of location data. In a 2022 letter to Congress, numerous privacy and civil liberties groups petitioned for committee hearings on a bill called the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act. The bill, which has a companion in the Senate introduced in 2021, would prohibit warrantless government purchases of cell phone location data from third party brokers. It passed unanimously through the House Judiciary Committee, 30-0, this past July, and awaits full review by the House. 

This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published Sept. 26.

Facts on ‘Geofencing’


  1. Privacy is an illusion in todays world. We gave it away for the convenience of the e-world.

    The only way to have genuine privacy anymore is to become a bushman and discard all modern technology.

    • I often wonder if we have a natural right to privacy. I’m leaning towards “No”. If I talk and somebody hears what I say, I can’t see where they’ve done anything wrong. A civil right to privacy? I think many laws say that we do.

      • Masked is correct. It is defined by how privacy is defined. Unfortunately, it is not a simple definition.
        Is there a fundamental human right to privacy? Yes, there is, even if exercising that right is difficult. (Or in today’s world, damned near impossible.) But, it exists, even if it is impossible to obtain complete privacy.
        First of all, you are responsible for ensuring your privacy, first and foremost. No one else should be trusted with things you want to keep private. Do not want people to know XYZ, do not tell them XYZ. If you are talking in public about something you do not want the public to hear, it is on you. You chose not to exercise your fundamental right to privacy. Someone else heard a private conversation, and that was because you chose to talk in public.
        However, if a third party shares private information about you, it is a violation of your fundamental human right to privacy. Which is why you get all these privacy policies from banks, doctors, insurance companies, etc… etc… etc…
        Just because someone can overhear you does not mean you do not have a right to privacy. I have zero responsibility to ensure your right to privacy is protected. Want to talk in public about whatever private items you have, you are the one at fault. Not the person overhearing you.

      • Your right to privacy is within the 4th amendment, which states “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects….” that means you have no reasonable expectation to privacy in public concerning speech.

      • It’s a very different thing to say that you are sharing information with a private person or private entity and that the government is collecting and using that information from those you’ve shared that information with. If people knew that the government was going to be using that information they may have not shared it as freely.

  2. It is interesting how the government ignores the use of GeoFencing in the 2000 Mules movie. It does not prove anything apparently.
    But, when it serves their purpose, it is a valuable and important tool.

  3. Geofencing info is sold extremely locally as well and manipulated and resold I believe by woke non-profits in Alaska. The recently captured Beans Cafe is manipulating data (“17*7**********MIXED AADC 995” for example) and they have bunches of government lawfare lawyers directing their activitieswho ought to know better. But no. Not another dime.

      • The helping industries know more about whom they are helping than one would think. They no doubt share up and down a full spectrum of those experiencing the full panoply of social ills among law enforcement and disinterested others. Minorities, natives are completely invaded. If one has forty percent lung capacity it is known. Their family members are swept too. These monitoring budgets are too big. Fortunately, their info is out date momentarily and fills operating systems. Memory probably bogs down. POLITICS. Contributors are mixed, matched and are resold for various private possibly negative purposes.

  4. This is the tip of the iceberg.

    The federal government’s frequent abuse of stingray devices, which mimic a cell phone tower and trick your phone into sending data to the fake tower, is particularly troublesome given Washington’s willingness to use such resources to target its political opponents and their supporters, or even those who do business with them.


    • Thank you for your service David Eastman. What does this “look like” to coin a far left phrase? May I tell you what it may look like? So, you go to use your phone perhaps a US Postal Service question (aka a voting machine) and what do you get? Depending entirely, politically, who you are? You get no use of your phone to dial out service you get an annoying sales pitch instead: ” Thank you for calling The US Postal Service Investigation Service. You may qualify for a free medical monitoring device being offered today for free. If you are over age 50 press 1; if you are under age 50 press 2″. There are no other options. You probably don’t approve of free federal monitoring devices of any type but the use of your phone is captured by the sting ray and is no longer a device you may use for any reason. If you attempt to call Senator Dan Sullivan’s office to request assistance with your postal now absent US Constitutionally guaranteed service you are told Senator Sullivan’s DC Office phone line is no longer in service. This happened to me yesterday. This and many other nuances are what sting ray capture of your telephone services “looks like” to the elderly now in the USA.

    • Rep. Eastman, do you know if these stingray devices are set up here in Alaska or are going to be set up? I cannot remember where I heard recently that there are going to be smaller “cell” towers set up. I take this as a warning because we already have a lot of “cell” towers here in the Mat-Su Borough.

      • Stingrays have been in common use for over a decade. The feds use them constantly, and the city of ANC bought one for APD in ’09 according to the 7/21/09 assembly minutes minutes.

  5. You have to assume you’re being watched all the time by electronic eavesdropping from the government. We are no longer free thanks to politicians. They are so afraid we might do something wrong. Just remember big brother is watching and waiting for us to slip up.

    • Not just the government. The internet, banks, Amazon, and on.

      Every time we do anything it leaves an e-footprint.

  6. I am going to get the hold of this organization and turn them in forthwith. Not another dime going forward. Unfortunately.

  7. Hey Siri! Alexa! Your smart TV! Your new car! WIFI….. That’s only the tip of the spear. There are things you can do to limit their ability to track. But most people I know would never unplug for even a minute. Pick a side…left or right. They are playing for the same team. You will own nothing and be happy. You will eat the bugs. Chemtrails…just look up and see them grid us with poison. They did so the last few days. The cabal wants to reduce the population by 90%. What are we doing to stop them? Oh yeah that’s a conspiracy theory. We live in the matrix and we are being played. They keep us focused on the right hand while the left one is the one destroying humanity. Time to Wake up people.

  8. One major solution to this problem of rampant invasion of privacy is very simple: just don’t carry a phone with you wherever you go. I have lived my entire life without ANY sort of cell phone, and I not only do not feel inconvenienced by that, I believe that it positively enhances my life. I see all the cell-phone-addicts out there, neurotically obsessed with their stupid little devices at almost every moment, and it both amuses and saddens me.

    And before some disingenuous idiot like Witless the Sog tries to retort that I obviously use a computer, yes, that is true — but I do not carry it with me everywhere that I go, nor do I live my life around it, as most idiot-phone addicts seem to do. I just wish all of them could see how sad, empty and pathetic their lives thus lived really are from a perspective outside of their e-world.

  9. This kind of tracking is predicated on the belief, upheld by numerous courts including the US Supreme Court, that the government has the authority to force our compliance for matters of public health. The string of court decisions goes back to the early days of the Republic. The first case, that I’ve found, in other words, the US Supreme Court case that laid the foundation for all decisions that came after, created out of thin air the state and local government right to force citizens to get vaccinations, to wear masks, to stay at home, all of the freedom limiting mandates the government hands down for public health, on the natural right to Life, self defense. The justices twisted the individual right to self defense into a broad based government right to “protect” everyone from everyone else through public health mandates. But no, you say…the Court struck down the federal mandates as unconstitutional! Yes…but in that very decision they reaffirmed the STATE/LOCAL GOVERNMENT right to force vaccinations and all the rest. Read it. You’ll be surprised.

    • THIS IS British Common Law. American Common Law practice is different. If you weren’t a party to the lawsuit, the complainer or the defendant, if you didn’t pay for the suit, if you didn’t receive the settlement it doesn’t apply to you. STARE DECISIS SHOULD BE MOOT. The government corporations are bankrupt and settled anyways; aren’t they?. Could we please have our American Land Common Law back again? Thanks ever so. Thot may be how we keep the republic ok? To heck with foreign agents registered in London anyway for “health”, bugs or what have you. Don’t need thum AND OR their foreign agendas.

  10. A possible solution to help with privacy and geofencing (from Eric Prince) …

  11. This is why I made a cage for my cell phone out of copper window screen.
    If I go somewhere I don’t to be tracked I just slip it over my cell phone.
    It blocks calls too so don’t forget to remove it. Use it when going to a gun store, gov’t property like BLM or Forest Service etc.

  12. Lol, willingly carry a tracking device around and then be surprised and upset when you’re be tracked. SMH.

  13. Give your wife or girlfriend a $250 gift card, tell her to go shopping with her friend, hide your phone in her car, and you’re free to do whatever you wish for the day.
    Of course, that means that you have to live without your smart phone for a day……..a feat few can do.

  14. It is hard to do, but ditch the smart phone. The convenience is actually slavery. This is not just confined to phones.

    The course ahead is to create parallel structures. Collaborate with others to do so. Of course it is hard work to make a better world and shun the authoritarian’s jail they have constructed for you. But would you rather stand tall with sweat on your brow or live on your knees as a slave for trifles of convenience?

  15. My first lesson about geofencing was how an investigation, which led to the documentary “1000 Mules”) tracked individual cell phone IDs within ten feet of a few election drop boxes in Arizona and other places in 2019. When they noted that many individual cell phone IDs kept coming up ten, twenty, thirty times, they had to set a limit because so many individuals kept visiting the SAME drop box at all hours of the day and night. Finally, they recorded only those who “visited” the box over 30 times. The rest of the under thirty visits, they dropped because there were just too many. They paid millions of dollars for this information from private companies.
    But it was the most honest election in history. Don’t forget that.

  16. My first visit to Yukon I overnighted in Destruction Bay. I got online for less than 15 min. Wanted to check weather and my hotel in Whitehorse.

    That’s all it took for my feed to be swamped with Yukon ads.

    Four days later I was on the ferry out of Skagway. Two years later when I went back, almost as soon as I crossed the border the Yukon stuff flooded in again.

    In the 21st century, privacy is an illusion. Best one can do is take care of what they post, where they surf, and what you say in public.

  17. if a person values their privacy, well…we leave a trail everyday where ever we go…we are tracked in a multitude of ways other than cell phones, even flip phones are equipped with limited gps/internet capabilities. purchase with card or cash, neighborhood ring devices, home/business sec cameras, your car collects all sorts of data on you, clicking on an ad on this site, withdrawing cash or depositing? cameras monitor, and bank records are created, go to a clinic or a pharmacy? again, a receipt is created and record created, social media, chat rooms, you tube, all have tracking capabilities, go to the VA?Get SS, Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, loans. Granted some of this data is harder to obtain than others of course. this is a great story on what kind of information is collected and how it is used. ‘ for all of you worried that the government is coming to get/spy on you, maybe look at your car first. Or get off a computer and consider not posting that rant. oh, and has anyone actually read how this site processes your comment data?

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