Have you ever just thought about something and entered the thought for an internet search? Could your curiosity put you in the middle of an investigation? Even the ACLU is sounding the alarm over a new practice to find people’s IP addresses when they conduct searches. Google was served with a tactic called keyboard warrants, according to the Washington Examiner. And according to the article, federal investigators have been doing it in secret. Yahoo and Microsoft have also received such warrants. Are the search terms they’re looking for specific enough to keep ordinary internet surfers safe?
In an attempt to track down criminals, federal investigators have started using new “keyword warrants” and used them to ask Google to provide them information on anyone who searched a victim’s name or their address during a particular year, an accidentally unsealed court document that Forbes found shows.
Google has to respond to thousands of warrant orders each year, but the keyword warrants are a relatively new strategy used by the government and are controversial.
Washington Examiner Reporter Nihal Krishan
The problem here comes with the government’s definition of “criminal.” As we’ve seen over the past 10 months, the government has its sights set on a whole lot of ordinary folks whose only crime is not agreeing with the government. Will they be searching for the bad guys or will they start to use such keyboard warrants to attack regular citizens? The Daily Mail reported on this situation regarding police hunting for criminals around the same time last year. It’s far more concerning if the feds are using it.
— Mike H. (@mkharsh33) October 6, 2021
FORBES accidentally came across mention of the keyboard warrants in a review of a search warrant that referenced checking anyone who searched for an assault victim’s name address and phone number in Wisconsin. But Forbes found other examples as well, with broader requests.
The latest case shows Google is continuing to comply with such controversial requests, despite concerns over their legality and the potential to implicate innocent people who happened to search for the relevant terms. From the government’s perspective in Wisconsin, the scope of the warrant should have been limited enough to avoid the latter: the number of people searching for the specific names, address and phone number in the given time frame was likely to be low. But privacy experts are concerned about the precedent set by such warrants and the potential for any such order to be a breach of Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches. There are also concerns about First Amendment freedom of speech issues, given the potential to cause anxiety amongst Google users that their identities could be handed to the government because of what they searched for.
“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,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “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.”
Thomas Brewster at Forbes
Accidental releases of keyboard warrants only came to the attention of the government when Forbes asked them to comment. Which means they have been conducting such things in secret for a while now. They quietly resealed the warrants after the media contacted them. You can read the orders in question in the Forbes article. Google claims that it has protections for users in place when it responds to the warrants, as does Microsoft and Yahoo. But since they have to respond to the warrants, are their “protections” good enough?
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