On The Front Lines
Calif. Officials Used Cell Phone Data, Geofence Surveillance to Spy on Church Assemblies During COVID-19 Lockdown
SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. — Government officials used cell phone data and geofence surveillance to track the number of congregants on church grounds during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
In a letter denouncing Santa Clara County’s use of geofence surveillance to spy on church attendees, The Rutherford Institute characterized it as an egregious violation of the congregants’ Fourth Amendment rights and an attempt to undermine protected First Amendment activities relating to the freedom of expression and religious freedom. The disclosure of the county’s geofence surveillance was revealed in the course of litigation between Calvary Chapel and Santa Clara County officials over the county’s attempts to force the church to pay nearly $3 million in public health fines for violating the region’s strict COVID-19 rules.
“Geofence surveillance, which allows the government to carry out mass surveillance on large groups of people based on their location data, reverses the burden of proof and renders every person in the range of that surveillance a potential suspect,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “These same mass surveillance technologies employed as part of the government’s dubious efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 can also be used to stifle dissent, persecute activists, harass marginalized communities, and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools.”
Geofence surveillance technology uses cell phone location data to identify people who are in a particular area at any given time. For instance, law enforcement officials have relied on geofence warrants to carry out dragnet sweeps of individuals near a crime scene. The FBI used geofence warrants to identify individuals who were in the vicinity of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
This same technology was reportedly used by government officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., to monitor the concentrations of congregants at Calvary Chapel during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 and levy nearly $3 million in public health fines against the church for violating the county’s strict pandemic restrictions. The county issued a shelter-in-place order in March 2020, dictating whom residents could see, where they could go, what they could do, and under what circumstances. County officials imposed even harsher restrictions on churches, accompanied by the threat of crippling fines for those that did not comply with the lockdown orders. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that similar restrictions unconstitutionally “single[d] out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment” and “str[uck] at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” county officials have sought to collect millions of dollars in fines levied against churches, including Calvary Chapel, for violating the county’s mandates.
The use of geofence warrants is highly controversial and is being increasingly debated in the legislatures and challenged in the courts. In January 2023, a federal district judge for the District of Columbia upheld the use of geofence warrants by police in connection with the events of Jan. 6 at the nation’s Capitol. However, civil liberties advocates warn that geofencing constitutes an unprecedented level of mass surveillance that is clearly at odds with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents, especially coupled with a particularized lack of probable cause.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.