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Google is sharing user data tied to search keywords with law enforcement

Jon Fingas
·Associate Editor
·2-min read

Google is still drawing criticism for the data it hands over to police. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell has reviewed court documents (via CNET) showing that Google handed over IP addresses for users who searched for a specific address shortly before someone set fire to the car of a witness in the racketeering case against accused sex offender R. Kelly. The search keyword warrant led to the arrest of Michael Williams, an associate of R. Kelly’s, on charges of both arson and witness tampering.

Agents linked IP addresses to Williams’ phone number and followed up with a warrant for details of Williams’ Google account, finding that he also looked up phrases such as “witness intimidation” and “countries that don’t have extradition with the United States.” The investigators also obtained a search warrant to obtain location info from Verizon (Engadget’s parent company) showing that Williams’ phone had traveled from his town of Valdosta, Georgia to Kissimmee, Florida, where the witness lives.

The filing had been submitted in July, but wasn’t made public until October 6th.

Williams’ lawyer, Todd Spodek, intends to challenge the warrant for allegedly violating his client’s rights. Search warrants are normally targeted at a narrow group of likely suspects — this was aimed at anyone looking for certain terms. It could be “misconstrued or used improperly,” Spodek said.

Experts are concerned that “reverse” warrants, including geofence warrants that target everyone in a given area, violate Fourth Amendment rights protecting against overly broad searches. A federal judge in Illinois has already ruled that the approach violates the Fourth Amendment, while New York politicians have proposed a bill banning the practice.

We’ve asked Google for comment, although it declined to tell CNET how many keyword-related warrants it received since 2017, when Minnesota police asked for user data linked to searches in a fraud case. However many it has received, this puts further scrutiny on both police data gathering methods and the willingness of tech companies to comply. If there was a constitutional violation, Google might not have needed to honor the request in the first place.

Update (4:50 PM ET): Google Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security Richard Salgado responded with the following statement.

“We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad, including by objecting in court when appropriate. These data demands represent less than 1% of total warrants and a small fraction of the overall legal demands for user data that we currently receive.”