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The Feds Are Using ‘Keyword Warrants’ to Compel Google to Turn Over Personal Search Data

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: October 7, 2021
Nest thermostat displaying the Google logo in Lafayette, California, January 17, 2021. Federal prosecutors are using Google’s search engine history logging as a treasure trove of data in “keyword warrants.”
Nest thermostat displaying the Google logo in Lafayette, California, January 17, 2021. Federal prosecutors are using Google’s search engine history logging as a treasure trove of data in “keyword warrants.” (Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

The federal government is using the legal process to compel Big Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to hand over data and records on users who search certain keywords, according to a new report. 

The usage of the tactic, albeit not new, has not surfaced more than a handful of times. On Oct. 4, Forbes published an exclusive article relying on a search warrant that was “accidentally unsealed by the Justice Department in September” involving a 2019 case where federal investigators searched for perpetrators in a trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor case. 

Forbes stated they had “reviewed the document before it was sealed again and is neither publishing it nor providing full details of the case to protect the identities of the victim and her family.”

The article said the “keyword warrant” compelled Google for “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,” including “all relevant Google accounts and IP addresses of those who made the searches.”

In the case, federal investigators also sought to obtain cookie data from Google for those who were flagged in the search results. 

Forbes says Google provided the data to the government in the middle of 2020. The case is still ongoing, and the Department of Justice “didn’t comment on whether or not any charges had been filed.”

According to the outlet, only two other keyword warrants have been made public. In 2020, investigators were able to track down the perpetrator of arson, Michael Williams, an associate of R Kelly, against a witness in the case by asking Google for the IP addresses of anyone who searched for the victim’s address.

According to CNET, “Court documents showed that Google provided the IP addresses of people who searched for the arson victim’s address, which investigators tied to a phone number belonging to Williams. Police then used the phone number records to pinpoint the location of Williams’ device near the arson.”

In a wire fraud case in 2017, a Minnesota judge authorized Google to hand over to law enforcement “names, email addresses, account information, and IP addresses of anyone who searched variations of the victim’s name over a five-week period of time,” according to researcher Tony Webster.

A lawyer for the ACLU told Forbes that keyword warrants are a technique that is certainly putting its toes over the line, “Trawling through Google’s search history database enables police to identify people merely based on what they might have been thinking about, for whatever reason, at some point in the past.” 

“This is a virtual dragnet through the public’s interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships, akin to mind reading powered by the Google time machine.”

“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. To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation.”

Forbes also found records of the existence of another keyword warrant in a California Court dated 2020. The warrant, which is under seal, but mentioned in a publicly available docket, has a name that reads like a directive issued directly by the Chinese Communist Party: “Application by the United States for a Search Warrant for Google Accounts Associated with Six Search Terms and Four Search Dates.”

After the article was published, the Electronic Frontier Foundation provided Forbes with copies of a trio of keyword warrants from the 2018 Austin serial bombings, where the FBI asked the courts to compel Google to surrender data on a series of broad search terms, including generic words such as cardboard or package in connection with bomb or pipe bomb, PVC bomb, or explosive from Jan. 1 to March 2, 2018.

A second warrant asked the search engine to provide search engine data for locations near the scene of the crime, including Google Maps and Waze data within a half mile radius from March 12 to March 18 of 2018.

In the third, Google was asked to hand over all search data on four specific addresses over the course of an entire month between February and March of 2018.

Similar warrants were provided to Microsoft and Yahoo as well.