The US federal government is secretly ordering Google and other search engines to track and provide data on anyone who searches certain terms through “keyword warrants,” according to a new report.
In recent years, only two such warrants have been made public, but accidentally unsealed court documents obtained by Forbes show that the government has made these requests much more frequently.
The unsealed warrant stems from a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin, where investigators were looking for men they believed had participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.
In an effort to track them down, officials ordered Google to provide any information about users, including account names, IP addresses and CookieIDs, who searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of his name. mother and her address for 16 days throughout the year.
Google provided the data in mid-2020, Forbes reported, although the document does not indicate how many people had their information sent to federal investigators.
The warrant was supposed to be secret, and the Justice Department only learned of the leak after the outlet asked for comment. The investigation is still ongoing and the warrant has since been sealed.
Only two keyword warrants were made public prior to the Wisconsin case.
One from 2017 shows that a Minnesota judge signed an order asking Google to provide data on any user in the town of Edina who searched for the name of a fraud victim.
The second, revealed in 2020, requested information on anyone who searched for the address of an arson victim who was also a witness in the government racketeering case against R. Kelly.
Forbes identified an unreported third warrant filed in the Northern District of California in December of last year. The warrant is currently under seal and has only been publicly noted in a court file. The information requested could be extremely general as the warrant is entitled “United States request for a search warrant for Google accounts associated with six search terms and four search dates”.
As a result of the initial report, three more keyword warrants were unearthed that were used in the investigation of the Austin bombings in 2018.
The terms appear to be very broad, directing search engines Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to provide information on users who have searched for various addresses and bomb-related terms, including “light explosives” and “pipe bomb.”
It is not known how much data search engines provided investigators.
The General Orders have been criticized by privacy experts for raising concerns that innocent users may be involved in a criminal investigation, with one expert claiming the warrants threaten the First Amendment.
“Browsing Google’s search history database allows police to identify people simply based on what they might have thought, for whatever reason, at some point in the past. It is a virtual net through the interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships of the public, akin to mind reading powered by Google’s time machine, ”Jennifer Granick, Surveillance and Cyber Security Advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This never before possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep innocent people, especially if the keywords are not unique and the timeline is not precise. To make matters worse, the police currently do this in secret, isolating the practice from public debate and regulation. “
Google defended itself from handing over the information, stating, “As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement agencies. order.”