A person’s internet history has long been a valid target of inquiry during a police investigation. But traditionally, this means that police contact an ISP to find out more information on someone who has already been identified as a suspect. Unfortunately, a 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. This practice is known as a keyword warrant and it puts many privacy rights experts on edge.
What is a Keyword Warrant?
A keyword warrant is a warrant that is issued to police that requires a search engine company, such as Google provide a list of ever single person who has searched for a given topic within a set period of time and in a particular area. Like geofence warrants, that require a tech company to provide information on all people who own cell phones that were located in a given area within a given amount of time, the judges who sign off on these warrants have no idea how many people will be targeted by this order because that information is simply unknown until the data comes back.
The Problem with These Warrants
This means anywhere from a handful to thousands, even millions of innocent people could have their information handed to police. In some cases, things are simple because only a handful of people are identified, similar to when police in Wales managed to track down a killer who used a crossbow by finding how many people in their country used Amazon to purchase a particular bolt -and only found two, one of which was automatically disqualified as a suspect.
But in a world where millions and millions of people are searching for dozens of things throughout the day, getting a list of people who searched for a given term is more than likely going to result in at least hundreds of innocent people having their information passed on to the police.
The keyword warrant also appears to lack the specificity required by the 4th Amendment that searches are targeted towards individuals the government has some objective evidence they are involved in a crime.
This type of investigation is also problematic because again, instead of identifying a suspect and then collecting additional evidence, they’re looking at tons of innocent people, some of whom might have circumstantial bits of evidence that superficially link them to a crime.
Imagine, for example, that someone who is fascinated by true crime ends up being a suspect for a crime. He would likely have many questionable searches in his browser history, such as “people who have gotten away with murder” or “most deadly murder weapons.” By coincidence, he may even live in the same area as someone who was killed and even driven by the victim’s house around the time of the murder but that doesn’t mean he is actually a killer. If police start looking into his superficial connections to the murder, they may overlook one of the victim’s jealous relatives who actually committed the murder.
What’s the Solution?
On an individual level, people performing searches can help protect their privacy by using private browsers like Chrome’s Incognito Mode or browsers that don’t track their users like Duck Duck Go! While doing so won’t protect your from police investigations if you’ve been identified as a suspect, it will shield you from getting swept up in an overly broad keyword warrant.
But this is a situation where every individual shouldn’t be asked to change his or her behavior in order to protect their rights. Instead, groups like the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation are working to urge legislatures to issue laws prohibiting such generalized and invasive warrants. And many groups are hoping that a higher court may put a stop to the practice altogether by ruling these warrants to be an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. After all, the police have no valid probable cause to look at the information of the hundreds or thousands of innocent people who are swept up in their searches.
What to do When You’re Targeted
If you believe you were wrongly suspected of a crime after an overly broad “reverse search” warrant like those issued for keywords or geofences, be sure to tell this to your attorney as it could be used as part of your defense. You can schedule a free initial consultation with attorney Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.