Controversy Erupts With The Expanding Use Of ‘Keyword Warrants’

It has been a long running trend that privacy is disappearing, but many have warned along with us here at that a trend for the future will be the aggregation of data into a network that creates a Chinese-like surveillance state except by consent instead of by force at gunpoint. CNET News delves more into this trend, building upon the warnings about collusion between law enforcement and tech corporations that ‘sweep’ data outside of search warrants of many people not connected to crimes but indirectly made ‘suspects by association’, through a recent story where police have come under scrutiny for demanding data based on all search engine queries at a given time.

There are few things as revealing as a person’s search history, and police typically need a warrant on a known suspect to demand that sensitive information. But a recently unsealed court document found that investigators can request such data in reverse order by asking Google to disclose everyone who searched a keyword rather than for information on a known suspect.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness’ car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The July court filing was unsealed on Tuesday. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing after it was unsealed.

Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson, according to court documents.

Court records in an arson case show that Google gave away data on people who searched for a specific address.

The original warrant sent to Google is still sealed, but the report provides another example of a growing trend of data requests to the search engine giant in which investigators demand data on a large group of users rather than a specific request on a single suspect.

“This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

The keyword warrants are similar to geofence warrants, in which police make requests to Google for data on all devices logged in at a specific area and time. Google received 15 times more geofence warrant requests in 2018 compared with 2017, and five times more in 2019 than 2018. The rise in reverse requests from police have troubled Google staffers, according to internal emails.

Google said Thursday that it works to protect the privacy of its users while also supporting law enforcement.
“We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate,” Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, said in a statement. “These data demands represent less than 1% of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”

The company declined to disclose how many keyword warrants it’s received in the last three years. (source)

It is true that as technology and crime trends change, so will the needs of police. However, in all cases, there is a larger principle, which is that if one is going to assert that there are legal protections against unreasonable search, they need to be respected and clarified.

As useful as any tool may be for solving a problem, the use of a tool cannot come at the sacrifice of principle, because while the use may be good now, the very tool may, as human history demonstrates, come to be used against the same people for evil ends but because a new standard of acceptable behavior has been established, will be justified on the same logic that the previous action was.

It is similar to the tension between Trump with the Supreme Court, when the former wanted to take cases directly to the Supreme Court but the latter said that Trump had to follow the procedures of the courts, lest the integrity of the justice system is threatened.

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