The U.S. government has discreetly ordered Google to provide data on anyone typing in certain search terms, Forbes reports.
The news, uncovered when a court document accidentally became unsealed, exposed that the government potentially could implicate innocent web users in serious crimes based on searched keywords, Forbes said Monday.
Forbes reviewed a search warrant in a 2019 case in which Wisconsin authorities were hunting men believed to have participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor.
Investigators in the case asked Google 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.
Google delivered data in mid-2020, though the court documents did not reveal how many users had their data sent to the government, said Forbes, which added the so-called keyword warrant was the broadest on record.
Previously, 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, and another 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, Forbes said.
Although thousands of such orders annually are made to Google, the government usually already has a specific account on which it wants information.
Forbes said search-term orders basically are fishing expeditions, hoping to ensnare possible suspects whose identities the government does not know. The report compared the orders 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.
"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," a Google spokesperson told Forbes.
The latest case shows Google continues to comply with search-term requests, even though there are concerns over their legality, and the potential to implicate innocent people who happened to search for the relevant keywords.
Privacy experts are concerned about the precedent set by such warrants, and the potential for such orders to be a breach of Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches.
Forbes said concerns also existed about First Amendment freedom of speech issues. Google users could experience anxiety knowing their identities might be given to the government because of what they searched for.
"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," Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Forbes.
"To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation."
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