The Government’s Secret ‘Google Search’ Warrant Trap

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It’s been 20 years since 9/11, which means it’s also been 20 years since America’s public debates about government surveillance under laws like the PATRIOT Act. It’s a bit amusing to look back and see commentators clashing over hot-button topics like whether the government should have access to things like library records. Two decades, two (plus) wars, and too many exposed warrantless government surveillance programs later, the idea that the biggest threat to liberty is Uncle Sam scrounging around to find out who checked out chemistry books from a Connecticut branch library is almost charming.

We have surveillance fatigue. A lot of people just assume that everything they do online is immediately hoovered up and stored in some massive desert National Security Agency data center for eternity. It’s not a bad heuristic, but there are still some procedural hurdles for the feds to get their hands on what they want.

One of them was recently publicized in a series of court documents obtained by Forbes. It’s called a “keyword warrant,” and it’s basically an open request for information on anyone who searches for particular terms online. Instead of the government saying, “I want all of arson suspect John Doe’s Google searches,” it’s, “I want information on all the people who searched Google for ‘arson.'”

The problem is evident. In the first scenario, investigators have already determined a suspect based on some evidence that they present to a judge, the typical standard for requesting a search warrant. In the second scenario, the government is asking search engines to provide data that they can use for whatever reason. It’s an open invitation for a fishing expedition. And many innocent people could get caught in the net.

Keyword warrants are not new, but they are rare, and they are little known by the broader public. The Forbes documents provide hard proof of the government’s judicial exercise of keyword warrant in a 2019 Wisconsin case tracking down men suspected of kidnapping and abusing a minor. Investigators asked Google for data on anyone who had searched for the victim’s name, her mother’s name, and her address over a period of 16 days.

Other known uses of keyword warrants include demands for information on Google searches for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the racketeering case against crooner R. Kelly in 2020 and Google searches for a fraud victim in Minnesota in 2017. It’s not just Google. Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that keyword warrants were served to Microsoft and Yahoo for searches on things like “pipe bomb” and “low explosives” in the course of tracking down the 2018 Austin bombings. Additionally, Forbes was able to track down the existence of a fifth keyword warrant request in California in late 2020, but it was only noted in a court docket, so we don’t know the extent of the order.

The normal objections apply. Someone could say, “Well, if you’re searching for ‘pipe bomb’ in Austin right before a series of pipe bombings, there is a pretty good chance you’re a pipe bomber.” There is also a chance you’re just a lazy Googler fan of the somewhat cringily-named defunct Pensacola folkpunk band, “This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb,” and have all the trappings and costumes of an Austin-based “anti-establishment” ne’er-do-well. You might fit the profile that some investigator may have of a pipe bomber. And if you happened to look up your old favorite tunes, “The Black Panther Song” and “Murder Bike,” during an unfortunate spate of bombings in a major city, well, maybe you’ve just become a person of interest. Or maybe you’re just put on the police radar in general, all because you pine for the days of the anti-Bush protest song.

It’s not comforting that we only know of a handful of instances of keyword warrants being served, either. First, these are obviously only the warrants that have been unveiled so far. But more fundamentally, we know now for certain that we can be swept up in some investigation merely for the content of our queries. Think of everything you type into Google. Do you want the feds to scrutinize you based on whatever weird thought made its way into the search bar?

Well, at least more people are learning about keyword warrants. And fortunately, there are alternatives. Big search engines like Google and Bing and Yahoo Search track users by default and store search histories in their massive data centers. This is how they can comply with these kinds of warrants in the first place.

Alternative search engines that are privacy-focused do not track users and do not store their search histories. DuckDuckGo, for instance, serves up the same results that you would get from a Bing search, but with enhanced privacy protections. Don’t like the idea of relying on the results that a big tech company decides to spit out? You can use Brave Search, which is independently indexed, which means that it does not use the algorithmic massaging that you get with mainstream engines. Want to have total control over what indexing you use through free and open-source software? You probably don’t need me to tell you about searx. All these options are attractive to people who worry about things like keyword warrants.

The existence of good alternatives is one bit of good news. Another bit is at least investigators had to ask. People have this idea that your local police department can automatically listen in on every Alexa device or something. Again, this is not a bad assumption to nudge your behaviors. But falsely believing that the government is all powerful can make people feel powerless. That’s not productive.

But this cuts both ways. We wouldn’t know about the warrant requests if reporters and activists didn’t accidentally or doggedly get their hands on them. There was no public debate. The vast majority might not care too much either way. The surveillance state has so thoroughly worn us down that we just accept it as a fact of life. You may be bearish on the prospects for heroic public procedural reform in the vein of the vaunted Church Commission. These days, that doesn’t matter too much for your personal life. Just use a privacy-respecting search engine and encourage your loved ones to as well.

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