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Report: Gov’t secretly ordering Google to turn over data of people who search certain words

Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., 2009. (Shawn Collins/Flickr)
October 06, 2021

The U.S. Government has been secretly ordering Google to turn over the data of people who type in certain search terms, such as the names, addresses and phone numbers of crime victims, according to a court document that was accidentally unsealed and then resealed, Forbes reported Monday.

In 2019, federal investigators in Wisconsin tracking the perpetrators of the suspected kidnapping and sexual abuse of a minor called on Google to provide information on anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address in a 16-day period that year. Google eventually complied with the orders and provided all of the relevant Google accounts and IP addresses.

According to Forbes, the court documents it reviewed did not make clear how many Google search users had their data sent to the government.

The government-ordered turnover is part of a practice sometimes referred to as a “keyword warrant.” According to Forbes, that 2019 case was one of the broadest on record in terms of the search term results that were requested. Only three other similar instances of “keyboard warrants” have been made public, suggesting that many more could be taking place in secret.

One data request in 2020 asked for the data on anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the federal racketeering case against singer R. Kelly. Investigators tracking a series of bombings in Austin in 2018 requested a “keyword warrant” that was even broader than the one associated with the 2019 trafficking case, asking for the IP addresses and Google account information of individuals who searched for various addresses and terms associated with bomb-making, such as “low explosives” and “pipe bomb.” Another “keyword warrant” was part of a 2017 case pursued by local police in Minnesota asking for user information on anyone who searched the name of a fraud victim in the entire city of Edina.

Privacy advocates argue the practice of law enforcement agencies submitting “keyword warrants” has the potential to ensnare innocent search users. While the data requested in the 2019 trafficking case was narrowed by a 16-day parameter, lowering the potential for innocent search users to be implicated in the search, privacy advocates are concerned about the precedent set by such warrants. Those privacy advocates believe these “keyword warrants” could violate the Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches. There are also concerns such search methods could harm the First Amendment as users may avoid seeking information they believe could subject them to law enforcement scrutiny.

“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,” Jennifer Granick, the surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Forbes. “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.”

“This never-before-possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep up innocent people, especially if the keyword terms are not unique and the time frame not precise. To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation,” Granick added.

In the 2019 trafficking case, the “keyword warrant” only became known to the public after the contents of the data request were unsealed by the Justice Department in September, likely by accident. Forbes said it was able to review the documents shortly before they were once again sealed. The DOJ’s investigation into the 2019 case is ongoing and it is unclear if any charges have been filed and whether any such charges rely on information gleaned from the “keyword warrant.”

A Google spokesperson told Forbes, “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.”