The US government uses “keyword warrants” to uncover the identity of anyone who searches Google and other search engines for certain search terms that may be linked to a crime, according to a new report.
The controversial practice, which is already raising civil liberties concerns over government overbreadth, was exposed on Tuesday at “Accidentally unsealed” court documents obtained by Forbes.
The keyword warrants – which have been used covertly for at least several years – have generated backlash, as many argue they violate an individual’s constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Trawling through 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.” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This never before possible technique threatens the interests of the First Amendment and will inevitably sweep away innocent people, especially if the key terms 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.
The US government has secretly ordered Google to track and provide user data on anyone who searches for specific names, addresses or phone numbers
The most significant federal keyword warrant released to date was a keyword research for the serial bomber that struck Austin, Texas in 2018
However, Google has defended its decision to respond to keyword mandates and claims they are protecting users by doing so.
“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,” a Google spokesperson explained.
FBI tried to use keyword searches to identify Austin bomber Mark Anthon Conditt
The federal government claims that the scope of the warrants is limited, which allegedly avoids involving innocent people who accidentally search for specific terms.
However, officials have not publicly disclosed how often they use keyword warrant requests, or the number of users whose data has been submitted by private tech companies.
Forbes reported that only a handful of keyword warrant requests have been made public.
The most drastic was a keyword research for the serial bomber that hit Austin, Texas in 2018.
The order served on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft required the submission of IP and account information for anyone searching for a range of bomb-making terms, such as “light explosives” and “tube bomb.”
Two people died in the 20-day bombing wave, and bomber Mark Anthony Conditt committed suicide as authorities approached him. Police said he was found thanks to unique pink construction gloves captured on surveillance video.
Conditt was not caught by the sweep warrants, but by examining footage from Home Depot to identify the buyer of the distinctive gloves worn by the suicide bomber (seen above the mail bomb)
The most recent keyword warrant was for a 2019 investigation involving Wisconsin men who allegedly trafficked and sexually assaulted a minor after she went missing earlier that year.
In an attempt to catch the victim’s alleged kidnappers, the FBI asked Google to provide them with information on anyone who searched for the girl’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name, and her address over a period of 16 years. days.
Google provided the government with the requested data – the relevant Google accounts and IP addresses – in mid-2020. It is not known how many users were included in the report.
The government has also asked Google to provide data on anyone who searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in R. Kelly’s racketeering trial.
In the third case, detailed in 2017, a judge signed a warrant asking the tech giant to provide information on anyone in Edina, Minnesota – where the crime took place – who searched for the name of a victim of fraud.
Keyword warrants – which are relatively new – have sparked controversy as many argue they violate an individual’s constitutional rights
The federal government claims that the scope of the warrants is limited, which allegedly avoids involving innocent people who accidentally search for specific terms. Both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security reportedly use keyword warrants
Cyber security experts have raised concerns about keyword warrants, as this is a type of search term order that is “actual fishing expeditions”.
They fear that allowing keyword warrants could set a precedent for violating the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.
Privacy experts also believe keyword searches could impact free speech, as users may fear that their information will be provided to the government based on what they are looking for.
The revelation of broad federal mandates was quickly condemned by privacy advocates and civil liberties groups.
“General warrants, such as reverse locate warrants + reverse keywords, bypass constitutional checks on police surveillance,” the New York branch of the ACLU tweeted.
“Law enforcement should not have wide access to tracking data. Mandates must be narrowly focused, specific and based on probable cause. ‘
“Another important thing to worry about with keyword mandates: secrecy. This warrant was unsealed by mistake. But what if it is not? ACLU lawyer Jennifer Granick tweeted.
“Would anyone have known that this technique had been used?” Or how often? Or what data has the government obtained? Or where is this information now? ‘ she added.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security – both of which are said to use keyword warrants – did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.
How Keyword Mandates Work: Sweeping Raises Privacy Concerns
The handful of keyword warrants that have been made public show how the government is using tactics to find unknown suspects.
First, federal investigators are asking the courts for a warrant to obtain information from Google on a specific set of search terms, such as the name or address of a victim.
In addition to specific conditions, the request typically includes a specific date range, and sometimes a specific geographic area.
If the court grants the order, investigators then demand that Google or other search engines provide the IP addresses and account information of any user whose search matches the parameter.
Warrants are unusual in that, rather than looking for information about a specific suspect, they look for general information that can be used to generate a suspect list for further investigation.
Critics say this is a “fishing expedition” by investigators who could implicate innocent people in serious crimes, but supporters of the practice say the warrants are narrowly tailored to target potential criminals.
A related practice is known as “geo-fencing” in which investigators search for account information for any mobile device in a specific area at a specific time.