A Simple Query, Interesting Consequences

October 15, 2021

The balance between effective tools for law-enforcement and civil liberties is, of course, a tricky one. Forbes discusses the thorny issue of keyword warrants in, “Exclusive: Government Secretly Orders Google to Identify Anyone Who Searched a Sexual Assault Victim’s Name, Address and Telephone Number.” The use of this specific warrant was inadvertently, and temporarily, unsealed by the Justice Department in September. Forbes was able to review the documents before they were sealed again. The write-up gives some relevant details of the Wisconsin case, but basically investigators asked Google for the Google account information and IP addresses of anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name, her address, and her phone number on 16 specific days. Before this, we’re told, only two other keyword warrants had been made public. Write Thomas Brewster emphasizes:

“While Google deals with thousands of such orders every year, the keyword warrant is one of the more contentious. In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime. But search term orders are effectively fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. It’s not dissimilar to so-called geofence warrants, where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time. … The latest case shows Google is continuing to comply with such controversial requests, despite concerns over their legality and the potential to implicate innocent people who happened to search for the relevant terms.”

In this particular case, the warrant’s narrow scope probably prevented that from happening. Still, even the most carefully worded requests set precedent. And others have been broad enough to impugn the merely curious, as with these orders made to Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo during the investigation into 2018’s serial bombings in Austin. Those warrants called for the account information and IP addresses of anyone searching for certain addresses and terms like “low explosives” and “pipe bomb.” As the ACLU’s Jennifer Granick observes:

“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. This is a virtual dragnet through the public’s interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships, akin to mind reading powered by the Google time machine.”

As Granick sees it, keyword warrants not only breach the Fourth Amendment’s protections from unreasonable searches, they also threaten the freedom of speech granted by First Amendment: Google users may hesitate to look up information if their search histories could be handed over to the government at any moment. It does not help, she notes, that this is all going down in secret. See the article for more information.

Cynthia Murrell October 15, 2021

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