“Keyword warrants” are now a mounting concern in some users after it was revealed that Google was able to retrieve user information based on their search history and hand this over to the government upon request.
There are worries that this might be used to implicate users, who are otherwise innocent, in serious crimes based on this evidence.
An example given by Forbes is of a 2019 investigation in Wisconsin where investigators were trying to track down a group of men believed to have been guilty of the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.
Google was asked to provide the account information and IP addresses of anyone who had searched the victim and her mother’s names as well as address over the span of 16 days.
The tech giant reportedly complied with this and handed the data of an unknown number of users over in the middle of the following year.
Requests like these in the context of crime investigation are not uncommon and, in most cases, the investigators already have a suspect and linked account in mind with evidence to back it up.
However, an order issued based solely on search terms is different, as it appears more like a shot in the dark, hoping to pinpoint a few suspicious individuals. Within this lies the potential for mistakes to be made.
In the Wisconsin case, the search terms were pretty exclusive, and not many people would’ve had reason to look for the victim’s details through a web search. But not all cases are so specific, and this could lead to a large group of people being branded “suspicious” without them even knowing about it.
Most of these search warrants remain totally confidential to the public. In fact, this particular case was also meant to be kept under wraps but was accidentally unsealed in September. It has since been resealed.
“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,” Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), tells Forbes, describing it as a “virtual dragnet.”
This is especially dangerous “if the keyword terms are not unique and the time frame not precise.” Given the amount of search traffic that goes through Google every day, it can be very difficult to narrow down genuine suspects with total accuracy.
“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,” commented a Google spokesperson.
But what about a blunder where Google accidentally “identifies” innocent people as criminals thanks to a blip in the algorithm?