Police are issuing Google with 'keyboard warrants'

REVEALED: Google is handing ‘users’ personal information to police if they search keywords related to an investigation’

  • CNET reports that police are issuing Google with ‘keyboard warrants’, forcing them to provide the IP addresses of all users who searched a particular word 
  • A ‘keyboard warrant’ led to the recent arrest of a suspect who set fire to a car owned by a woman who accused R. Kelly of sexual assault
  • The lawyer of that suspect says he is now planning to challenge the legality of that ‘keyboard warrant’
  • Experts say they could violate the privacy of innocent internet users; they may be in breach of Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights  

Unsealed court documents reveal that Google has provided police with information on users simply based on their keyword searches – an action that some say could be a violation of US civil rights.  

According to a CNET report, published on Saturday, officers have asked the tech giant to hand over the IP addresses of everyone who had looked up words relevant to their particular investigations. 

Ordinarily, police would have to hone in on an individual suspect before giving Google a warrant that orders them to provide that person’s search history – but ‘keyword warrants’ subvert such a practice.  

Unsealed court documents reveal that Google has provided police with information on users simply based on their keyword searches – an action that some say could be a violation of US civil rights

Earlier this year, police in Florida commenced an investigation after a woman who accused singer R.Kelly of sexual assault had her car set on fire outside of her home.  

CNET reports that investigators ‘sent a search warrant to Google that requested information on users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson’.

Michael Williams – a relative of one of R. Kelly’s former publicists – was arrested following a ‘keyboard warrant’ 

Google subsequently ‘provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address’. 

That eventually led police to arrest a suspect by the name of Michael Williams – a relative of one of R. Kelly’s former publicists. 

But while police might cite that particular case as evidence that ‘keyboard warrants’ are effective, others are concerned that innocent people could be caught up in the crossfire.  

‘This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance,’ Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told CNET. 

‘When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.’ 

Williams’ attorney, Todd Spodek, says he is now planning to challenge the legality of the ‘keyboard warrant’.  

‘Think of the ramifications in the future if everyone who searched something in the privacy of their own home was subject to interviews by federal agents,’ he told CNET.  

‘Someone could be interested in how people die a certain way or how drug deals are done, and it could be misconstrued or used improperly.’  

‘Keyboard warrants’ are similar in style to ‘geofence warrants’, whereby police ask Google to ‘provide data on all devices logged in at a specific area and time’.

‘When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional’: Experts are sounding alarm about ‘keyboard warrants’

According to CNET, there has been a 20 fold increase in the number of ‘geofence warrants’ served to Google in the past three years alone.  

The publication asked Google to reveal how many ‘keyboard warrants’ and ‘geofence warrants’ it has received from investigators since 2017. They did not disclose the answer. 

Instead, the company released a statement saying they try to balance user privacy with their obligations to police under the law. 

‘We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate,’ Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, stated.  

‘These data demands represent less than 1 percent  of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.’

Google says they trying to balance user privacy with their obligations to police under the law

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