- Investigators are secretly using keyword warrants to help track down criminals
- The relatively new style of warrant orders Google to track and provide user data on anyone who searches specific names, addresses or telephone numbers
- Cybersecurity experts fear that keyword warrants set a precedent for breaching the fourth amendment protection against unreasonable searches
- Google, however, has defended its decision to respond to the federal government’s keyword warrants and claims they protect users when doing so
- Both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have been cited as entities that have or may use keyword warrants
DailyMail.com | by Natasha Anderson | October 6, 2021
The U.S. government is using ‘keyword warrants’ to uncover the identity of anyone who searches Google and other search engines for certain search terms that may be related to a crime, according to a new report.
The controversial practice, which is already drawing civil liberties concerns about sweeping government overreach, was revealed on Tuesday in ‘accidentally unsealed’ court documents obtained by Forbes.
Keyword warrants — which have been secretly employed for at least several years — are drawing backlash as many argue they violate an individual’s constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
‘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, 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.’
However, Google has defended its decision to respond to keyword warrants and claims they protect users when doing so.
‘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 explained.
The federal government claims the scope of the warrants is limited, which allegedly avoids implicating innocent people who search the specific terms by happenstance.
However, officials have not publicly disclosed how often they use keyword warrants requests, or the number of users whose data has been turned over by private tech companies.
Forbes reported that only a handful of keyword warrant requests have been made public.
The most sweeping was a keyword hunt for the serial bomber who struck Austin, Texas in 2018.
The order served on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft demanded the handover of IP and account information for anyone who searched for a range of terms related to bomb making, such as ‘low explosives’ and ‘pipe bomb.’
Two people died in the 20-day bombing spree, and bomber Mark Anthony Conditt killed himself as authorities closed in on him. Police said that he was traced by unique pink construction gloves captured on surveillance video.
The most recent keyword warrant surrounded a 2019 investigation involving Wisconsin men who were believed to have trafficked and sexually abused a minor after she had gone missing earlier that year.
In an attempt to catch the victim’s alleged kidnappers, the FBI asked Google to provide them with information on anyone who had searched the girl’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over a 16 day period.
Google provided the government with the requested data — relevant Google accounts and IP addresses — in mid-2020. It is unclear how many users were included in the report.
The government also asked Google to provide data on anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in R. Kelly’s racketeering trial.
In the third instance, detailed in 2017, a judge signed a warrant requesting that the tech giant provide information on anyone in Edina, Minnesota — where the crime took place — who searched the name of a fraud victim.
Cybersecurity experts have raised concerns over keyword warrants because they are a type of search term order which are ‘effectively fishing expeditions’.
They fear that allowing keyword warrants will set a precedent for breaching the fourth amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
Privacy experts also speculate that keyword searches could impact freedom of speech because users may fear that their information will be provided to the government based on what they search for.
The revelation of the sweeping federal warrants drew swift condemnation from privacy advocates and civil liberties groups.
‘Blanket warrants, such as reverse location + reverse keyword warrants, circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance,’ the New York chapter of the ACLU tweeted.
‘Law enforcement shouldn’t have broad access to tracking data. Warrants must be narrowly targeted, specific, and based on probable cause.’
‘Another important thing to worry about with keyword warrants: secrecy. This warrant was unsealed by mistake. But what if it weren’t?’ tweeted ACLU lawyer Jennifer Granick.
‘Would anyone ever know that this technique had been used? Or how often? Or what data the govt got? Or where that information is now?’ she added.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security — both of whom are are said to utilize keyword warrants — did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.
How keyword warrants work: Sweeping practice draws concerns over privacy
The handful of keyword warrants that have been made public show how the government uses the tactic to seek unknown suspects.
First, federal investigators apply to the courts for a warrant seeking information from Google on a specific set of search terms, such as the name or address of a victim.
In addition to the specific terms, the request usually includes a specific date range, and sometimes a specific geographic area.
If the court grants the order, the investigators then demand that Google or other search engines turn over the IP addresses and account information for any user whose search meets the parameter.
The warrants are unusual in that, rather than seeking information about a specific suspect, they seek sweeping information that can be used to generate a list of suspects for further investigation.
Critics say that it amounts to a ‘fishing expedition’ by investigators that could implicate innocent people in serious crimes, but defenders of the practice say that the warrants are narrowly tailored to target potential criminals.
A related practice is known as ‘geo-fencing’ in which investigators seek account information for any mobile devices within a specific area at a specific time.