Today we updated our privacy policy and law enforcement guidelines to clarify that we’ll never disclose user location information to law enforcement officials except in response to a probable cause search warrant, or in case of a life-threatening or similarly dire emergency. This guarantees the strongest possible legal protection for location data, equal to the guarantees we’ve already made about other user content. Here’s the new language on

We will only disclose user content, including maps or data, or location information, in response to a probable cause search warrant. If we have a good faith belief that there is an emergency involving the danger of death or severe physical injury, we may also provide the limited information necessary to prevent that harm, if we have it.

Location data is highly sensitive: it contains information about where we live, our daily habits, and our network of friends and acquaintances. As we look into increased use of probe data to help us produce the world’s best maps and routing, we’re paying close attention to the privacy of this information. Technical protections and robust anonymization form the backbone of our work, but legal protections are essential as well.

Here’s why the new legal language is critical: existing U.S. statutes let law enforcement officials access certain types of electronic records under reduced legal standards. Disclosure orders can be obtained for any information “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation. For the users whose data is sought, these processes offer limited guarantees that requests will be narrowly tailored or restricted to situations of real need. Law enforcement officials have argued that existing law allows access to even highly sensitive location information with these lesser safeguards, and the companies holding this information have generally complied. An ACLU records request of 250 police departments nationwide found that “virtually all” respondents said they track cell phone location data maintained by cellular companies, and “only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”

We believe this type of data access is unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment requires the police to get a warrant before searching private places or documents, except in very limited emergency scenarios. The warrant requirement ensures that officials show “probable cause” for a search before an independent judge and specifically describe the information they’re seeking.

In 2012, the Supreme Court held that police trigger the Fourth Amendment’s protections when they install a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car. Since then, law enforcement officials have argued that location data held by third parties is different. But we strongly believe that location data should be private regardless of where it’s stored, just as the Sixth Circuit has said for email, and we’re willing to go to court for that principle. Several courts are already considering this issue, and we look forward to the resolution of those cases.

We absolutely support and honor the hard work of law enforcement officials to protect citizens’ safety and security. There’s no contradiction between this respect and ensuring that warrant processes are followed before our users’ privacy is ever compromised. We hope other companies that hold location data will follow suit.