The US government is reportedly ordering Google and other search engines in secret to track who searches for certain terms; via “keyboard warrants.”
Forbes reports that this has become known through accidentally unsealed court documents. That particular Keyboard warrant had previously been used for a still ongoing 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin, for men accused of trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.
Investigators asking Google for the IP addresses and CookieIDs of anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, her mother’s name, address, and that address’ phone number over a 16 day period. Google provided data in mid-2020, but the documents do not show how many users had their data sent.
Others included those searching for the address of an arson victim (and witness in the racketeering case against R Kelly), and a fraud victim’s name. An update to the Forbes report later highlights how warrants to Google [1, 2, 3], Microsoft, and Yahoo over the 2018 Austin bombings asked for those looking for specific addresses, and terms associated with bomb making (e.g. “low explosives” and “pipe bomb”).
The keyboard warrants have come under fire on the grounds of privacy, and implicating someone in a crime for what they had looked up. A Google spokesperson stated “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.”
Nonetheless, privacy experts are concerned this will set a precedent, and breach Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches. In addition, this would give concerns for the First Amendment. Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), explained her concerns.
“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. 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.”
CookieIDs are another sticking point, as they are (as stated by the government in their warrant) “identifiers that are used to group together all searches conducted from a given machine, for a certain time period. Such information allows investigators to ascertain, even when the user is not logged into a Google account, whether the same individual may have conducted multiple pertinent searches.”
Forbes also note how the government had published the kidnapping victim’s information; including some of the very information the keyboard warrants were asking for and the victim’s Facebook page. While FBI and DHS cases have used pseudonyms and acronyms for victims, revealing a minor’s identity has been a “common mistake” in recent years according to Forbes.
Another element may be high-profile cases pressuring Google into compliance. YouTube (purchased by Google in 2006) recently announced they would penalize and ban accounts that spread “misinformation” about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine; in spite of ongoing concerns and discussions.