The federal government has covertly issued warrants requiring Google to give up user information on people searching for specific terms and information, generating concerns among privacy advocates that users may inadvertently be caught up in criminal probes at a higher frequency than once believed.
Forbes reported Tuesday that federal authorities have begun using what is called “keyword warrants” which require the tech behemoth to give up data on users who were reportedly searching for a victim’s name or address during a particular timeframe, according to a court document that was unsealed by mistake.
The search giant has to comply with or respond to thousands of warrants every year, however, the keyword warrants appear to be a fairly new strategy employed by federal agencies and have become very controversial, the report said.
“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,” said Jennifer Granick, a surveillance and cybersecurity attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with the outlet.
“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 is not precise. To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation,” she noted further.
According to Forbes, the case revealing the keyword warrants stems from a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin involving “the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor” who had gone missing that year but eventually turned up and claimed she had been kidnapped and assaulted sexually. Federal authorities asked Google to provide information about “who had searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days across the year.”
Google reportedly provided investigators with the information in mid-2020, Forbes reported, “though the court documents do not reveal how many users had their data sent to the government.” Forbes said that it did not publish all of the details of the case because two years on, the investigation is continuing. The Justice Department accidentally unsealed sealed the Wisconsin warrant last month, the outlet noted, but has since resealed it. The department would not comment on whether any arrests had been made.
However, there are concerns regarding the legality and constitutionality of such searches due to “the potential to implicate innocent people who happened to search for the relevant terms,” the outlet reported.
Federal authorities in the Wisconsin case said that particular warrant’s scope was very likely limited so the number of people who searched for the requested terms was very likely to be exceedingly low. But that has not stopped privacy experts from worrying about Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, as well as First Amendment speech issues, Forbes noted.
The search giant noted in a statement that the company complies with legitimate warrants while keeping users’ concerns over privacy in mind.
“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,” a Google spokesperson told Forbes.
That said, Forbes noted that “another disturbing aspect” to the Wisconsin case is that the Justice Department “published the kidnapping victim’s name, her Facebook profile (now no longer accessible), her phone number and address, a potential breach of a minor’s privacy.”
Also, the outlet noted that in another case involving bombings in Austin, Texas, in 2018, Google responded to three keyword warrants asking for much broader search terms. Similar warrants were served on Microsoft and Yahoo, Forbes noted. Two people were killed in those bombings.