Forbes Reports on US Government’s Use of “Keyword Warrants”

Published · Oct 07, 2021

The US government has ordered Google to identify people who searched for certain words related to an ongoing investigation. The concern is that these “keyword warrants” are effectively dragnets that could implicate innocent internet users in crimes.

In 2019, federal investigators were looking for men involved in the trafficking and sexual abuse of a minor, reports Forbes. Investigators approached Google in an attempt to find the perpetrators.

They asked Google to provide information about anyone who has searched for the victim’s name, her mother’s name, and her address over a 16-day period during that year.

Google gave investigators the data in 2020. However, the court documents don’t show how many users were included. Authorities only made two other cases of keyword warrants public, prior to this.

One asked for information on anyone who has searched for an arson victim’s address. Another requested information about anyone from the city of Edina who searched for a fraud victim’s name.

Casting a Wide Net

Keyword warrants are contentious.

Courts haven't set out the legality of keyword warrants. Plus they’re shrouded in secrecy. In fact, the information about this one was released accidentally. If courts deem them "unreasonable searches", the warrants could also violate the 4th Amendment.

Law enforcement incorporating keyword searches into background checks and investigations also has the potential to threaten the 1st Amendment. Commentators see technology as an extension of humans. So they see web searching as an extension of thought.

Someone has questions, so they do some Googling to figure things out. If people’s searches can implicate them in crimes, then everyone will self-censor when using the internet. Not in what they put online, but what they’re looking for.

This moves data collection beyond the concrete information contained in, say, people search sites, to abstract territory. While keyword warrants don’t seem widespread yet, Forbes and others find evidence that they might be more common than expected.

For the time being, VPNs can protect innocent users by masking their IP from Google and search history from ISPs. The legality around these keyword warrants is uncertain. But as the extent of the practice is charted, developments are sure to follow.

Garan van Rensburg
Garan van Rensburg

Garan is a writer interested in how tech reshapes the environment, and how the environment reshapes tech. You'll usually find him inoculating against future shock and arguing with bots.