Report: Government Demands Google Identify People Searching for Sexual Assault Victims Personal Info
Google gets a “keyword warrant.”
Forbes reported that the government demanded Google to identify people searching for a sexual assault victim’s personal information. This includes name, address, and telephone numbers.
Forbes wrote about a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin. Authorities believed some men “participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.”
The search warrant said the girl went “missing that year but had emerged claiming to have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted.” More:
In an attempt to chase down the perpetrators, investigators turned to Google, asking the tech giant to provide information on anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days across the year. After being asked to provide all relevant Google accounts and IP addresses of those who made the searches, Google responded with data in mid-2020, though the court documents do not reveal how many users had their data sent to the government.
The government gives Google a keyword warrant (emphasis mine):
It’s a rare example of a so-called keyword warrant and, with the number of search terms included, the broadest on record. (See the update below for other, potentially even broader warrants.) Before this latest case, only two keyword warrants had been made public. One revealed in 2020 asked for anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against singer R Kelly. Another, detailed in 2017, revealed that a Minnesota judge signed off on a warrant asking Google to provide information on anyone who searched a fraud victim’s name from within the city of Edina, where the crime took place.
While Google deals with thousands of such orders every year, the keyword warrant is one of the more contentious. In many cases, the government will already have a specific Google account that they want information on and have proof it’s linked to a crime. But search term orders are effectively fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. It’s not dissimilar to so-called geofence warrants, where investigators ask Google to provide information on anyone within the location of a crime scene at a given time.
A Google spokesperson said the search engine has a “rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement.”
The answer does not satisfy those who value privacy. People have concerns about the legality and possible implication of innocent people.
The government claimed the scope of the warrant kept them from implicating innocent people because the number of people searching for those specific terms “in the given time frame was likely to be low.”
Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Forbes about three other warrants:
After publication, Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), highlighted three other Google keyword warrants that were used in the investigation into serial Austin bombings in 2018, which resulted in the deaths of two people.
Not widely discussed at the time, the orders appear even broader than the one above, asking for IP addresses and Google account information of individuals who searched for various addresses and some terms associated with bomb making, such as “low explosives” and “pipe bomb.” Similar orders were served on Microsoft and Yahoo for their respective search engines.
As for what data the tech companies gave to investigators, that information remains under seal.
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