The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Forbes (Thomas Brewster) reports:
The U.S. government is secretly ordering Google to provide data on anyone typing in certain search terms, an accidentally unsealed court document shows. There are fears such "keyword warrants" threaten to implicate innocent Web users in serious crimes and are more common than previously thought.
In 2019, federal investigators in Wisconsin were hunting men they believed had participated in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor. She had gone missing that year but had emerged claiming to have been kidnapped and sexually assaulted, according to a search warrant reviewed by Forbes.
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.
It's a rare example of a so-called keyword warrant …. 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.
This may well be constitutional, much as subpoenaing a potential witness to ask who had asked the witness for information about a crime victim. Like all police powers, it might be abused, but perhaps on balance it's worth keeping. Still, it strikes me as worth thinking about; I hadn't heard about this specific practice before, so I thought I'd mention it.