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Government orders Google to track, provide info on what someone is searching using ‘keyword warrants’

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Federal investigators have reportedly been trying to solve crimes by using warrants to force Google to search its databases for anyone in the public who’s ever used its search engine to look up certain information on the victim.

For instance, to try and determine who’d kidnapped and sexually assaulted an underage girl in 2019, federal investigators in Wisconsin used a warrant to force Google to list the names of anyone who’d “searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days across the year,” according to Forbes.

This sort of warrant is known as a “keyword warrant.” This stunning use of power was recently uncovered by Forbes through an “accidental unsealed court document.”

“The warrant only came to light because it was accidentally unsealed by the Justice Department in September,” according to Forbes.

The case reportedly remains “ongoing” two years later, meaning that apparently, the use of a “keyword warrant” to try and find the suspect was unsuccessful.

But that a “keyword warrant” was even issued and then abided by so cooperatively by Google in the first place has civil liberty advocates like ACLU “NBA all-star of surveillance law” Jennifer Granick gravely concerned.

In the following thread, she notes that the “keyword warrant” that was used could have easily ensnared innocent people “in the community who knew of her disappearance may have searched for more information about the circumstances of her case”:

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Prior to the case in Wisconsin being accidentally made public in September, there had been two other known cases involving the use of a “keyword warrant.”

“One revealed in 2020 asked for anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against singer R Kelly,” Forbes notes.

“Another, detailed in 2017, revealed that a Minnesota judge signed off on a warrant asking Google to provide information on anyone who searched a fraud victim’s name from within the city of Edina, where the crime took place,” Forbes continues.

Forbes further notes that “keyword warrants” are somewhat similar to “geofence warrants,” which involve investigators forcing Google “to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time.”

The problem is that there’s a big difference between these veritable “fishing expeditions” and, as an example, investigators demanding information on “a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime.”

Granick notes that this “fishing expedition” tactic is “new,” as well as potentially unconstitutional and a gross violation of “the balance of power between government and the individual”:

“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,” Granick said in a statement to Forbes.

“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,” she added.

This unreal use of power has conservatives especially concerned given the sort of radically far-left administration that’s currently in power. What, they ask, if this power is used to target them next?

Vivek Saxena

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