Surprise! Google Allegedly Collaborates with Enforcement Authorities

October 21, 2020

Google collects user information to create customized, targeted ads. Google has stated more than once that it protects its users’ privacy, including search history. It might even seem impossible for Google to keep the entire world’s search history given the amount of space needed to store that information…but it is not. CNet shares that, “Google Is Giving Data To Police Based On Search Keywords, Court Docs Show.”

Police need a warrant to access someone’s digital information, but a loophole allows law enforcement to go around privacy laws. Instead of requesting a specific individual’s search history, law enforcement can go directly to Google and request data on anyone who searched for a specific term.

This recently happened in August 2020, when Florida police asked Google to disclose the identities of people who searched for a specific address. Michael Williams, an associate of singer and sex offender R. Kelly, was arrested for arson and witness tampering. Williams apparently set fire to a car that belonged to a witness in the ongoing R. Kelly sex offender case.

Google released the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address and one of them led back to Williams. Williams used his phone to search for the victim’s address and that tied him to the crime.

While it is great that a bad actor like Williams is brought to justice, law enforcement could use a reverse order for Google information for evil purposes. The law enforcement could effectively become bad actors with a badge. The large search history information requests are a loophole to the Fourth Amendment:

“ ‘This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,’ said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. ‘When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.’

The keyword warrants are similar to geofence warrants, in which police make requests to Google for data on all devices logged in at a specific area and time. Google received 15 times more geofence warrant requests in 2018 compared with 2017, and five times more in 2019 than 2018. The rise in reverse requests from police have troubled Google staffers, according to internal emails.”

Google states they support user privacy and support law enforcement. Google requires a search warrant for broad data requests and they only represent 1% of the total legal demands for user data the company receives.

Broad data requests are a growing concern. Legal professionals are challenging their validity, including Williams’s lawyer. Broad data requests do require probable cause like other search warrants. In Williams’ case, he did conduct other searches that includes the phrases: “where can i buy a .50 custom machine gun,” “witness intimidation” and “countries that don’t have extradition with the United States.”  These search phrases were discovered when an individual search warrant for Williams was issued.

Broad search requests have positive results, but all it takes is one misinterpretation of the information to harm an innocent. It also does not take much to abuse this power too.

Whitney Grace, October 21, 2020

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