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A relatively new type of search warrant that attempts to compel search engines to hand over information on anybody in a certain area who has entered in a set of terms is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, experts say.
“Keyword warrants are a blatantly unconstitutional way to transform every Google search into a government tracking tool,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told The in an email.
Law enforcement in the so-called keyword warrants seek records relating to searches in a bid to advance an investigation.
Most of the warrants, which are similar to geoforce warrants, have sought information from Google.
In one of the earliest known examples, a police officer in Hennepin County in 2017 asked Google to turn over details of any user in Edina who searched four terms, all containing the name “Douglas,” between Dec. 1, 2016, and Jan. 7, 2017.
Details sought included names, addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, social security numbers, and payment information.
The population of Edina is about 53,000.
The warrant was approved by a judge but it wasn’t clear whether Google complied. Court records for the case weren’t available.
A federal judge signed off on five warrants for a probe into bombings in Austin, Texas, the following year. The warrants sought information from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. FBI investigators wanted details of any users who searched for addresses where the bombs were set off. According to court records, the warrants were executed.
Another keyword warrant was authorized by a federal judge in June 2020. Investigators wanted information on any Google users who searched for the address of a residence in Kissimmee, Florida, which housed a government witness in the case against singer R. Kelly. Somebody set a vehicle on fire outside the residence, prompting an investigation.
According to court records, Google handed over records relating to Michael Williams of Valdosta, Georgia. That ultimately led to Williams being arrested. Williams, an associate of Kelly, pleaded guilty to arson in April. Kelly was found guilty last month of multiple counts including racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, bribery, kidnapping, and sex trafficking charges.
The existence of the rare type of warrants was highlighted recently by Forbes, which found federal investigators in Wisconsin in 2019 had asked Google to hand over information on any users who searched for a minor who was allegedly kidnapped and sexually abused.
The warrant was accidentally unsealed and reviewed by Forbes before being sealed again.
One other previously unreported keyword warrant was found in California federal court. It related to Google and sought information on users who searched for six terms.
The FBI and the Edina Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Aaron Mackey, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the warrants don’t appear to be lawful under the Constitution.
“Should a warrant be issued for this? I just think the answer is pretty simple: it’s no. Because the cops are using the warrant to get the suspect, to find the suspect. They’re not establishing probable cause to identify the suspect or locate that particular person or place or thing and search it,” he told The . “It’s just sort of the opposite of how everything should work, and therefore it’s a pretty significant Fourth Amendment violation.”
“Keyword warrants pervert the promise of the 4th Amendment. Under our constitution, warrants are supposed to be limited to a particular individual, based on showing of probable cause. Keyword warrants provide information on overwhelmingly innocent people, potentially tens of thousands of people at a time,” Cahn added.
Because many of the records relating to the searches are sealed, it’s not clear whether Google or other companies that have been targeted by the warrants have challenged them in court.
Mackey recommends members of the public push back and demand Google stop complying with the warrants and also work on pressuring law enforcement agencies who are utilizing them.
Google did not respond to a request for comment. Microsoft declined to comment. Yahoo could not be reached.
A DuckDuckGo spokeswoman told The via email that the way its engine is set up precludes being targeted by keyword warrants.
“DuckDuckGo doesn’t have any search histories by design,” she said. “And because we do not have search histories, we have never been served with a warrant or other law enforcement demand for search histories of any kind, keyword warrants or otherwise.”