The Government’s Secret ‘Google Search’ Warrant Trap
It’s been 20 years since 9/11, which means it’s also been 20 years since America’s public debates about government surveillance under laws like the PATRIOT Act. It’s a bit amusing to look back and see commentators clashing over hot-button topics like whether the government should have access to things like library records. Two decades, two (plus) wars, and too many exposed warrantless government surveillance programs later, the idea that the biggest threat to liberty is Uncle Sam scrounging around to find out who checked out chemistry books from a Connecticut branch library is almost charming.
We have surveillance fatigue. A lot of people just assume that everything they do online is immediately hoovered up and stored in some massive desert National Security Agency data center for eternity. It’s not a bad heuristic, but there are still some procedural hurdles for the feds to get their hands on what they want.
One of them was recently publicized in a series of court documents obtained by Forbes. It’s called a “keyword warrant,” and it’s basically an open request for information on anyone who searches for particular terms online. Instead of the government saying, “I want all of arson suspect John Doe’s Google searches,” it’s, “I want information on all the people who searched Google for ‘arson.'”
The problem is evident. In the first scenario, investigators have already determined a suspect based on some evidence that they present to a judge, the typical standard for requesting a search warrant. In the second scenario, the government is asking search engines to provide data that they can use for whatever reason. It’s an open invitation for a fishing expedition. And many innocent people could get caught in the net.
Keyword warrants are not new, but they are rare, and they are little known by the broader public. The Forbes documents provide hard proof of the government’s judicial exercise of keyword warrant in a 2019 Wisconsin case tracking down men suspected of kidnapping and abusing a minor. Investigators asked Google for data on anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, her mother’s name, and her address over a period of 16 days.
Other known uses of keyword warrants include d
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