PRIVACY experts are concerned the US government is overreaching by secretly issuing warrants for Google to turn over a person's search terms.
Federal investigators are pursuing so-called "keyword warrants" and getting Google to provide information based on anyone who searched a victim's name or their address during a particular year, according to a court document that was mistakenly unsealed in September.
The revelation came in a 2019 federal case in Wisconsin where investigators pursuing men they suspected were trafficking and sexually abusing a minor who had gone missing.
The investigators approached Google to supply information on anyone who used their search engine to type in the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days that year, according to Forbes.
Authorities being able to access peoples’ searches is concerning to privacy experts who fear they could breach of Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches.
“Trawling through Google’s search history database enables police to identify people merely based on what they might have been thinking about, for whatever reason, at some point in the past,” surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union Jennifer Granick told Forbes.
Google didn’t deny the searches and claimed they were fairly supportive of both law enforcement and protected individual rights.
“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 said.
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL
While the Silicon Valley tech giant responds to thousands of warrant orders every year, the government’s “keyboard warrants” are a new and potentially controversial pursuit.
The document was also unredacted, meaning the accidental unsealing published the kidnapping victim’s name, her Facebook profile, her phone number and address – a potential breach of a minor’s privacy, according to Forbes.
Aside from the Wisconsin sex abuse case, which has since been sealed, Forbes was able to find at least one other instance where a keyword warrant was sought.
That case occurred in the Northern District of California in December 2020, but unlike the Wisconsin case, the document was sealed.
That order is listed in the docket as: “Application by the United States for a Search Warrant for Google Accounts Associated with Six Search Terms and Four Search Dates,” according to Forbes.
Following the publication of Google’s “keyboard warrants” article, Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), detailed three other Google keyword warrants.
She found they involved an investigation into serial Austin bombings in 2018, which resulted in the deaths of two people.
Also, Google is not the only company serving up such information to law enforcment agencies.
Both Yahoo and Microsoft appear to have supplied the similar search data in two cases, Forbes reported.
GOOGLE'S ‘GEOFENCE WARRANTS’
Just last month, Google was under pressure to explain is method of providing location data to law enforcement in an attempt to catch criminals.
Authorities were able to seek a “geofence warrant' that puts Google on the clock to hand over a person’s data.
Google reported it fielded 11,554 geofence location warrants from law enforcement last year.
It said 8,396 had been requested in 2019.
Police in Gainesville, Florida turned to Google to Google supply intel about a man called Zachary McCoy after they determined his routine bike ride had him passing through a crime scene.
McCoy was received an alarming email from Google in January 2020 informing him that the police had requested his user data.
He had seven days to go to court if he wanted to block the release of his Google data.
He learned that the case involved a burglary that had happened at a home on his bike route that particular day in 2019.
Police had obtained McCoy's Google location data at the time through a geofence warrant.
The connection between his location and the site of the crime meant the police wanted to access more data about McCoy.
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