Government secretly orders Google to identify anyone who searches for a name, address and phone number

The US government is secretly ordering Google to provide data on anyone typing certain search terms, according to an accidentally unsealed court document. There are fears that such “keyword warrants” threaten to implicate innocent internet users in serious crimes and are more common than previously thought.

In 2019, federal investigators in Wisconsin were hunting men who they said had participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor. She was missing that year but came out claiming to have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted, according to a search warrant reviewed by Forbes. In an attempt to track down the perpetrators, investigators turned to Google, asking the tech giant to provide information on anyone who searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address for 16 days at the during the year. After being asked to provide all relevant Google accounts and IP addresses of those who performed the research, Google responded with data in mid-2020, although court documents do not reveal how many users submitted their data. to the government.

This is a rare example of what is called a “keyword term” and the largest on record with the number of search terms included. Prior to this latest case, only two keyword warrants had been made public. One revealed in 2020 asked anyone looking for the address of an arson that targeted the vehicle of a witness in the government racketeering case against singer R Kelly. Another, detailed in 2017, revealed that a Minnesota judge had signed a warrant asking Google to provide information on anyone who searched for the name of a fraud victim, from the town of Edina where the crime took place. occurred.

While Google processes thousands of such orders every year, the keyword term is one of the most controversial. In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google Account it wants information about and has proof that it is linked to a crime. But the search term orders are in fact fishing expeditions, in the hope of trapping possible suspects whose identity the government does not know. This is no different from so-called “geofence warrants,” where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone who is at a crime scene at any given time.

“As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” a Google spokesperson said.

The latest case shows that Google continues to comply with these controversial claims, despite concerns about their legality and the potential to involve innocent people who have searched for the relevant terms. From the Wisconsin government’s perspective, the scope of the warrant should have been limited enough to avoid the warrant: the number of people searching for specific names, address, and phone number within the allotted time was likely low. But privacy experts are concerned about the precedent created by such warrants and the possibility that such an order violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. There are also concerns about First Amendment free speech issues, given the potential for anxiety among Google users that their identities could be turned over to the government because of what they searched for.

“Browsing Google’s search history database allows police to identify people simply based on what they might have thought, for whatever reason, at some point in the past. It is a virtual net through the interests, beliefs, opinions, values ​​and friendships of the public, akin to mind reading powered by Google’s time machine, ”said Jennifer Granick, Surveillance and Cyber ​​Security Advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “This never before possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep the innocent away, especially if the keywords aren’t unique and the timeline isn’t precise. To make matters worse, the police currently do this in secret, isolating the practice from public debate and regulation. “

The Wisconsin affair should also have been kept a secret. The warrant was only revealed because it was accidentally unsealed by the Justice Department in September. Forbes reviewed the document before it was resealed and released it or provided full details of the case to protect the identity of the victim and his family. The investigation is ongoing, two years after the crimes, and the Justice Department has not clarified whether charges have been laid or not.

Forbes was able to identify another previously unreported keyword search in the Northern District of California in December 2020, although its existence was only noted in a court file. It also has the potential to be large. The order, currently under seal, is titled “US Request for Search Warrant for Google Accounts Associated with Six Search Terms and Four Search Dates”.

The government can get more with such requests than just Google account identities and IP addresses. In Wisconsin, the government was hoping that Google could also provide “CookieID” belonging to all users who performed the searches. These CookieIDs “are identifiers which make it possible to group together all the searches carried out from a given machine, for a certain period of time. Such information allows investigators to verify, even when the user is not signed in to a Google account, whether the same person was able to perform multiple relevant searches, ”the government wrote.

There was another disturbing aspect to the search warrant: the government had published the name of the kidnapping victim, his Facebook profile (now more accessible), his phone number and his address, a potential injury to his life. deprived of a minor. The government has now sealed the document, but was not alerted to the leak until after Forbes emailed the Justice Department for comment. This mistake – of revealing the identity of underage victims of sexual abuse in court documents – has become common in recent years. As in the last case, the FBI and DHS were seen choosing pseudonyms and acronyms for the victims, but then posting their full Facebook profile link, which contains the minor’s name.

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