EFF Fights Back Against ‘Reverse Keyword Search’ Warrants

Does the police have the authority to obtain the identities of anyone who searched for a specific keyword? The EFF says ‘no’.

Privacy and women’s rights are watching a particular court case nervously these days. The court case is known as People v. Seymour. It is challenging the police use of something known as “reverse keyword search” warrants. When you search for something on Google, you tend to use keywords. This might be “baseball” or “hockey bracket” or “knitting”. Those keywords are then used to scour the web for pages that use those keywords. After that, a search engine like Google will use their algorithms to present users the results of that search in the order they think best suits the users search query.

Well, a reverse keyword search warrant more or less takes the process and puts it in reverse. Essentially, police issue a warrant for anyone who used a particular keyword search. Those warrants then go to search engines like Google. After that, the search engine then hands over the identities of anyone who searched for that specific keyword. It’s another form of dragnet surveillance where authorities cast a wide search net and scoop up anyone who happened to use search looking for something in particular. There’s no context or anything like that, you just might get caught up in such a search.

This practice has now been challenged in court. The case goes by the name of People v. Seymour and many privacy and women’s rights advocates know that this case could have enormous implications given the current backsliding of civil rights the US is currently undergoing. From CNBC:

A teen charged with setting a fire that killed five members of a Senegalese immigrant family in Denver, Colorado, has become the first person to challenge police use of Google search histories to find someone who might have committed a crime, according to his lawyers.

The pushback against this surveillance tool, known as a reverse keyword search, is being closely watched by privacy and abortion rights advocates, who are concerned that it could soon be used to investigate women who search for information about obtaining an abortion in states where the procedure is now illegal.

In documents filed Thursday in Denver District Court, lawyers for the 17-year-old argue that the police violated the Constitution when they got a judge to order Google to check its vast database of internet searches for users who typed in the address of a home before it was set ablaze on Aug. 5, 2020. Three adults and two children died in the fire.

That search of Google’s records helped point investigators to the teen and two friends, who were eventually charged in the deadly fire, according to police records. All were juveniles at the time of their arrests. Two of them, including the 17-year-old, are being tried as adults; they both pleaded not guilty. The defendant in juvenile court has not yet entered a plea.

The 17-year-old’s lawyers say the search, and all evidence that came from it, should be thrown out because it amounted to a blind expedition through billions of Google users’ queries based on a hunch that the killer typed the address into a search bar. That, the lawyers argued, violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an amicus brief in the case. They posted about this as well:

Should the police be able to ask Google for the name of everyone who searched for the address of an abortion provider in a state where abortions are now illegal? Or who searched for the drug mifepristone? What about people who searched for gender-affirming healthcare providers in a state that has equated such care with child abuse? Or everyone who searched for a dispensary in a state that has legalized cannabis but where the federal government still considers it illegal?

The answer is no. And in an amicus brief EFF intends to file today in Colorado, we explain why these searches are totally incompatible with constitutional protections for privacy and freedom of speech and expression.

The case is People v. Seymour, and it is perhaps the first U.S. case to address the constitutionality of a keyword warrant. The case involves a tragic home arson in which several people died. Police didn’t have a suspect, so they used a keyword warrant to ask Google for identifying information on anyone and everyone who searched for variations on the home’s street address in the two weeks prior to the arson.

Like geofence warrants, keyword warrants cast a dragnet that requires a provider to search its entire reserve of user data—in this case queries by more than one billion Google users. As in this case, the police generally have no identified suspects when they obtain a keyword search warrant. Instead, the sole basis for the warrant is the officer’s hunch that the suspect might have searched for something in some way related to the crime.

Keyword warrants are possible because it is virtually impossible to navigate the modern Internet without entering search queries into a search engine. By some accounts, there are over 1.15 billion websites, and tens of billions of webpages. Google Search processes as many as 100,000 queries every second. Many users have come to rely on search engines to such a degree that they routinely search for the answers to sensitive or unflattering questions that they might never feel comfortable asking a human confidant, even friends, family members, doctors, or clergy. Over the course of months and years, there is little about a user’s life that will not be reflected in their search keywords, from the mundane to the most intimate. The result is a vast record of some of users’ most private and personal thoughts, opinions, and associations.

The question is, even though there are significant implications to this, why is this case especially worrying for both privacy advocates and women’s rights advocates? Simply put, the overturning of Roe v Wade has turned women into second class citizens. Should they seek medical advice by searching something on Google, it could mean police would be able to, theoretically, track women down and prosecuting them for daring to even think about something like getting an abortion or getting the facts about an abortion.

Of course, the backslide isn’t just going after abortion rights. As we know, other rights are also on the chopping block as well. This includes LGBTQ rights, voter rights, and several others as well. So, the long term negative impact this case would have (assuming this practice would still stand after) could have major repercussions on those other rights as well. Little wonder why this case is being so closely followed right now.

At any rate, all of this really makes it look like the major backslide in human rights is not only going full steam ahead, but going at an alarming rate as well. So many civil rights seem to be on the table and other rulings seem to be happening at a rapid fire rate as well. With so little political appetite to really do anything about it other than encourage people to vote, it doesn’t appear that this backslide is slowing down any time soon.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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