So will I turn her virtue into pitch
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. (Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello, Act II, Scene iii.)
Our federal government may be lurching toward a police state, using keyword internet searches as an expanded database to catch would-be criminals, and in the process, creating a trap to potentially ensnare thousands of innocent people. If it sounds like something out of the movie Minority Report, that’s not far off from the reality. According to the Washington Examiner, “The U.S. government is reportedly secretly issuing warrants for Google to provide user data on anyone typing in certain search terms, raising fears that innocent online users could get caught up in serious crime investigations at a greater frequency than previously thought.”
Although police have regularly dipped into Google data to locate information that would be helpful in locating a criminal, this new approach differs greatly. As Vista Criminal Law points out, the “new method of investigation flips this process on its head by allowing police to identify everyone who has searched for a particular bit of information and only then slimming down the results until they find a possible suspect.”
Traditionally, businesses, including Google have been compelled to turn over data to authorities to aid them in their search for criminals. As Verfassungsblog states, “That type of search can be quite invasive, but it fits the broader framework for legal investigations: A person is suspected of a crime, records are held on them by a business, and that business is compelled to hand them over.”
However, this sweeping approach to law enforcement, known as keyword warrants, which tracks the data of every user who searched for a specific keyword, phrase, or address, may be crossing the line and infringing on our Constitutional rights. The intention, of course, is noble. Police are using all tools at their disposal to not only catch dangerous criminals but protect victims in the process. But we all know where the road to good intentions goes when it has the unstoppable and unassailable power of the federal government behind it. Just think McCarthyism, for beginners.
Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) frames the issue this way: “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,” which ultimately “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.”
Back in 2017, the ACLU filed a motion to “quash a warrant issued to police to search a Facebook community page for a broad range of information about a Bellingham, Washington, group engaged in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and advocating for environmental justice,” according to their website. The ACLU stated: “The warrant at issue here is deeply problematic and runs afoul of constitutional protections. Political speech and the freedom to engage in political activity without being subjected to undue government scrutiny are at the heart of the First Amendment.” (This in no way excuses the behavior of some protestors who left, ironically, an environmental disaster for clean-up crews.)
The civil rights organization also pointed out that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from performing broad fishing expeditions into private affairs” as well as “seizing information from Facebook accounts simply because they are associated with protests . . . ”
Moreover, the ACLU was concerned that the keyword warrant not only targeted people directly involved in the protest but also gathered “data related to an unknown number of people who merely interacted with the group via Facebook at some point during the 12 days covered by the warrant.” And although the search warrant was ultimately withdrawn by the Whatcom County Prosecutor, such attempts should remind us of the precarious and seemingly tenuous nature of our privacy and civil liberties.
The Minnesota incident is not an isolated case. In 2020, “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,” as reported by Forbes. Specifically, the search information was used to link Michael Williams, an associate of musician and accused sex offender R. Kelly, to the arson of a car belonging to a witness in the Kelly case.
To be fair, Williams, 38, plead guilty to one count of arson and federal prosecutors dropped a charge of witness tampering as a result of the guilty plea, according to Oxygen True Crime. And a Google spokesperson recently said, “As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,”
Still, somehow I don’t find their reassurances very comforting. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about arson, exploring the recent California fires as well as the psychological substrate of arsonists. I shudder to think of the keywords I used in my internet searches and what the federal government might do in a future virtual dragnet. Of course, it’s unlikely that my work will end up causing any problems for me, especially given my role as a journalist.
But it’s the potential that scares the hell out of me. As Thomas Brewster, Associate Editor at Forbes writes, there are legitimate “concerns about First Amendment freedom of speech issues, given the potential to cause anxiety amongst Google users that their identities could be handed to the government because of what they searched for.”
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