US Gov Secretly Ordering Google To Reveal User Search History

keyword warrants

They call it “keyword warrants.” And it is just as unsettling as it sounds. 

According to a new report, the US Government requested that Google reveal search data related to specific keyword searches. As of today, such requests have been made twice. 

Unsealed documents related to a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin show that “keyword warrants” were requested. The case involved a child sex trafficking and abuse case. 

In this case, the “keyword warrant” requested IP addresses, account names, and CookieIDs for users who searched for the victim’s name, which included her mother’s name and some related misspellings. A VPN could stop some of this information from being collected. Read our what is a VPN guide for more information on that subject. 

Google provided the requested data in 2020. It is unclear how many people’s private data was included in the resulting transfer of data. The warrant remains sealed, and the original warrant was supposed to remain private. 

In 2017, a Wisconsin judge ordered Google to provide keyword search data inside the city of Edina who searched for a specific case-related name. 

In 2020, a judge requested Google to provide keyword search data for anyone who searched for an address of an arson victim. This order was related to the recent R. Kelly case. 

There are also reports of 2018 Austin bombings keyword search warrants.

These warrants relate to Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft Bing’s search engines. They also seem to be extremely broad.

“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,” Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“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.”

The above quotes summarize eloquently the dire risks associated with broad, sweeping warrants. It’s clear that most people want to combat criminal behavior, particularly that behavior which harms children. But we can’t allow government officials a carte blanche access to our private communications in the process. 

Google responded the privacy scrutiny saying, “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.”

But what Google fails to acknowledge is that it most likely delivered innocent people’s data; or, persons’ data not associated with any criminal investigation. In the real world, a judge closely examines a warrant to comply with succinct and strict adherence to a related investigation. In other words, we don’t search everyone in a 5-mile radius after a crime occurs. Instead, evidence is collected which names suspects and then warrants are issued.

Author: Jim Satney

PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.

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