Google Shared Search Data With Feds Investigating R. Kelly Victim Intimidation Case

Topline

Google disclosed the IP addresses of anyone who searched for an arson victim’s address to the federal agents, which investigators used to pinpoint the device used by the alleged perpetrator, according to court documents unsealed earlier in the week, highlighting another instance of Google submitting to a so-called “keyword warrant.”

Key Facts

Federal investigators used the data shared by Google to link Michael Williams— an associate of musician and accused sex offender R. Kelly —  who allegedly set fire to the car belonging to a witness in the Kelly case, according to snippets of the court filings shared by Detroit News reporter Robert Snell.

“Keyword warrants” are a type of reverse search warrant in which law enforcement seeks data regarding all individuals searching for specific phrases online, that can then be used to narrow down suspects.

Typical search warrants require probable cause and are often associated with a suspect or an address, keyword warrants however give up data on a large group of data based on the fact that they may have searched for specific phrases.

CNET reports that after investigators were able to tie Williams to the arson through the keyword warrant, they sent Google another warrant specifically seeking data from the suspect’s account, and found that he had searched for phrases including “where can i buy a .50 custom machine gun,” “witness intimidation” and “countries that don’t have extradition with the United States.”

Chief Critic

Evan Greer, the deputy director of the human rights group Fight for the Future, told Forbes, such warrants are “dragnet surveillance and it should be illegal. No one should be targeted by law enforcement based solely on an Internet search.” Greer added that the incident was a “perfect example of how Google’s corporate surveillance — collecting and storing information about the things we search for — can easily be used to power authoritarian government surveillance. It’s one more reason to use alternative search engines that don’t track or monitor what you search for.”

Key Background

According to the CNET report, Google has received 15 times more “geofence warrant” requests in 2018 compared with 2017, and five times more in 2019 than in 2018. These geofence warrants are similar to keyword warrants where police make requests for user location data at specific times instead of what content they searched. Google’s staffers have been concerned by the rise in requests of such reverse warrants, internal emails shared by Arizona’s attorney general in August show. In 2017, Forbes reported that a judge in Minnesota has signed off on a warrant allowing police to demand Google data on anyone who searched for the name of a fraud victim across the whole city of Edina.

Further Reading

Google is giving data to police based on search keywords, court docs show (CNET)

Cops Demand Google Data On Anyone Who Searched A Person’s Name… Across A Whole City (Forbes)

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