In a recent report from Forbes, the U.S. government has been issuing what are known as “keyword warrants” to Google and demanding that they comply with them. These warrants are attempts to link a perpetrator of a crime to a Google account based on their search history, and so far as we’re aware, these have been used exclusively in cases where the police have protected victims of sexual abuse and fraud, and to catch an arson. This information comes from a court document that was accidentally leaked, leading many to realize the implications of such tactics.
It’s no secret that the government makes thousands of requests to Google and other big tech and information companies each year in instances where they believe that such data could help them apprehend the responsible parties of a crime, and Google itself publishes what are known as ‘Transparency reports’ all the time. Seriously, you can literally go and download them right now in CSV format and open it in Sheets or Excel to see how many requests were made per state and country and how many of those Google complied with.
The company’s policies regarding government requests to remove or access content on the Transparency Report website, and are extremely clear and strict on when it’s warranted, particularly in life-threatening situations. One Google spokesperson even stated that “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.”
However, “Keyword warrants”, as Forbes puts it, are basically an attempt to fish for information first and then to tie said information to a Google Account after the fact. This means that whether or not someone is innocent, and just so happens to search for specific terms, they could be implicated in a possible crime without realizing it!
In some instances, “CookieIDs” were requested too, which are basically “identifiers that are used to group together all searches conducted from a given machine, for a certain time period. Such information allows investigators to ascertain, even when the user is not logged into a Google account, whether the same individual may have conducted multiple pertinent searches,” according to a quote from a government spokesperson that Forbes cited.
In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime. But search term orders are effectively fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. It’s not dissimilar to so-called geofence warrants, where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time.Forbes
I too believe that the work that law enforcement does is vital to protect innocent lives, and I’ll always be in favor of that as a priority. I’m curious though where the line is drawn and if it is moving when it comes to Google’s compliance with requests like this. The idea of Keyword warrants is like doing a fuzzy search and then circumstantially accusing someone of something. I certainly hope that a lot more deep diving is performed as a result of findings such as these so that anyone who searches for a seemingly innocuous keyword doesn’t randomly get a knock on their door and handcuffs on their wrists. Keep in mind that search terms are not unique and their time frame is not precise. Any manner of logic can string disparate ideas together to form a narrative against someone.
“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, serveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via Forbes
Needless to say, the largest issue here is perception. I’m sure that a lot of thought has gone into this on both ends with the U.S. government and Google alike. Unfortunately, these decisions don’t ever concern the public or users until well after the fact. In a democracy, or rather a constitutional republic, where the understanding of how the First Amendment is interpreted is based on an ever-changing and evolving society where technology and information are now real factors to contend with, these discussions need to be had and often with all parties involved, not just in secret, even if that means doing so on a case by case basis.