A church in San Jose, Calvary Chapel, was fined for violating COVID-19 restrictions after government authorities used geofencing technology to track their congregants’ cell phones. Geofencing involves the collection of location data from smartphone apps, often without users realizing that it’s being shared and sold to private companies.
The lawsuit filed by Calvary Chapel argues that this was a warrantless surveillance violation and raised constitutional concerns. Privacy advocates and legislators are concerned about the widespread use of geofencing by law enforcement, even with warrants, as it may violate the Fourth Amendment.
A bill called the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act is being considered to prohibit warrantless government purchases of location data from third-party brokers.
Real Clear Policy reports:
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.