A new report revealed the federal government is ordering Google, as well as other search engines, to track and disclose data on any individual who searches specific terms through “keyword warrants.” Unsealed court documents obtained by Forbes show the government has made these requests more frequently than publicly admitted.
The report followed a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin where men who were believed to be participating in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor were being hunted. The girl had gone missing that year, but she had been found, claiming to have been the victim of kidnapping and sexual assault. While trying to find the perpetrators, investigators went to Google, asking for information on anyone who searched important details related to the case over a period of time like the victim’s name, two different spellings of her mother’s name, and her address.
Google complied with the request and responded with data in 2020, although it was not revealed how many people had their data compiled and sent. These “keyword warrants” are rare, but the 2019 example was the broadest on record with the number of search terms it included.
Prior to this case, only two other keyword warrants were made public. One, which took place in 2017, showed that a Minnesota judge signed off on a warrant requesting that Google provide information on individuals who searched the name of a fraud victim from within the city where the crime happened.
A more recent case in 2020 asked for names to be revealed of anyone who searched for the address of an arson victim. The victim was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against R. Kelly. After the court documents were accidentally unsealed, information on three more keyword warrants surfaced that were used in the investigation of the 2018 Austin bombings.
Keyword warrants, because they are so broad, have often been criticized by privacy experts because they raise concerns that innocent people could get stuck in a criminal investigation. Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, says it even threatens the First Amendment.
“This never-before-possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep up innocent people, especially if they 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.”
Google, however, defended complying with the orders and giving up information. “As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the work of law enforcement.”