Law Enforcement Also Using 'Reverse' Warrants To Obtain Google Searches

from the no-suspects,-just-search-terms dept

Hunting down suspects these days doesn't require canvassing the area of a crime scene for witnesses and suspects. All it takes is a warrant. But these are not your regular warrants. To start with, there's no suspect to target and no property of theirs to search. These "reverse" warrants work the way you'd expect them to: backwards. Law enforcement agencies approach companies like Google with demands for the information on everyone in areas near crime scenes and work backwards from the data dump to find suspects.

It doesn't always work. Sometimes they get the wrong person. Other times, investigators are shot down by judges who recognize it's impossible to generate probable cause for the search of everyone in a certain area at a certain time. Reverse warrants for location data and devices turn everyone into a suspect when investigators seek this information.

But reverse warrants aren't just for location data, as c|net reports. A warrant first spotted by Robert Snell of the Detroit News sought something else: everyone who performed a Google search for a certain home address.

In August, police arrested Michael Williams, an associate of singer and accused sex offender R. Kelly, for allegedly setting fire to a witness' car in Florida. Investigators linked Williams to the arson, as well as witness tampering, after sending a search warrant to Google that requested information on "users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson."  

This warrant appeared to have worked, at least in terms of locating a suspect. The original warrant is still sealed, but the response returned by Google contained only a single search, immediately narrowing the suspect list down to a single person. Further investigation showed the device that performed this search traveled from Georgia to the address in Florida and then back to Georgia after the vehicle torching took place.

Obviously, this raises another set of Constitutional questions a court will have to address. The attorney for Michael Williams plans to challenge this search as a Fourth Amendment violation. That's where the probable cause factor for search warrants comes into play. There are plenty of innocuous reasons for someone to search for a particular address. In this case, only one person did and phone records obtained following this initial "reverse" search established a pretty suspicious travel record.

But is there probable cause to believe a search for an address is evidence of a crime? That's a questionable assertion and it has the possibility to turn plenty of innocent people into suspects if their Google search histories can be obtained through keyword searches by law enforcement. Many people have an interest in crime. But a much smaller subset actually commit crimes. Searches for terms related to criminal activity will turn curiosity into possible criminal intent. Just because there's a warrant involved doesn't mean it's Constitutional. Slurping up people's Google searches en masse aligns these reverse warrants with the general warrants of this nation's colonial days.

Of course, the downside to pushing back against these warrants is the possibility of creating precedent that says law enforcement doesn't even need a warrant to obtain this info. It's almost impossible for anyone to claim they didn't knowingly and voluntarily share their searches with their search engine provider. That might nudge courts towards finding Google searches to be third-party records, obtainable with only a subpoena.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, general warrants, gps, michael williams, privacy, r. kelly, reverse warrants, search terms, surveillance
Companies: google


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  • identicon
    NoLongerBreathedIn, 13 Oct 2020 @ 9:42am

    I’d argue that a request for “all who searched the address within specified time period, or if more than three such individuals, merely the number thereof” would be more likely to be valid. After all, if there are a whole bunch of such people, it’s likely to be a popular location and it won’t help much, but with only one or two searches, it’s very suspicious.

    Still probably iffy, though, and I’d still prefer a warrant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Kitsune106, 13 Oct 2020 @ 9:52am

    Hmmmm

    Where's the mens rea?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Oct 2020 @ 12:29am

      Re: Hmmmm

      Buried with the Habeas Corpus. It's right underneath the pile of shreds that used to be the fourth amendment, in the corner over there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    aerinai (profile), 13 Oct 2020 @ 10:03am

    I have mixed feelings on this subject. I understand the need for constitutional protections, but I also understand the need for detectives to do their job. I'm almost wondering if there could be such a thing as a 'blind warrant' that would request the information in some anonymized fashion and let a judge rule on whether or not based the information could be unsealed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 10:17am

      Re:

      A point to be considered is that detectives solved crimes without access to all these records before such comprehensive records became available. The desire of the US police to access every third party record is giving them a more comprehensive look into peoples lives than the likes of the Stasi or the KGB ever dreamed of.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        aerinai (profile), 13 Oct 2020 @ 10:38am

        Re: Re:

        I guess I see a legitimate investigative technique with proper oversight (warrant) is a safeguard against widespread abuse. However, I understand the power of unintended consequences, and the rubber stamp machine we have in our judiciary.

        I guess that is where the 'mixed' feelings comes in. There should be a way to do this in a way that protects the information of innocent people but also give investigators a way to use this information in a constructive way. Using the analogy of a law firm being raided, there would be a 'clean team' that would be involved with keeping sensitive information from the prosecutor and investigators. Just wondering if some form of 'information escrow' could solve this problem but still allow for investigative techniques to be employed.

        This is one of those things that I think 'doing nothing' will keep the status quo of requests being made with minimal oversight, which is problematic. But thinking of this as a legitimate avenue for investigations, there may be a compromise to be had, or at least discussed. (I know... talking about compromising in 2020 America... I must be crazy).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 10:56am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The problem with reverse warrants is that they are time and place based, and they generate a list of potential suspects, and require further investigation and records to find actual suspects. The example given could easily have led to another warrant to gain location records on a list of suspects, rather than just one. If they had had say 200 people making the query, that would have been followed by a request for 200 sets of location records to find one or two suspects.

          Also, what protections are there to ensure that the police do not add everything they get to their databases, whether or not it helps solve the crime they are investigating.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:20pm

      Re:

      "I also understand the need for detectives to do their job"

      There is that need. However, that need does not override the rights of everybody else. They've never had carte blanche to access 100% of all data to do their jobs in the past, so we have to find the correct balance.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2020 @ 6:24am

      Re:

      " I understand the need for constitutional protections, but I also understand the need for detectives to do their job."

      That would require law enforcement to know what their jobs are.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:03am

    Obviously, all crime is perpetrated by individuals that leave easily followed clues, like doing a google search of your target just prior to committing the crime - this is simply brilliant! No criminals will escape this dragnet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    F. Scott Fitztemplate, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:17am

    And when no crime is committed there, isn't ever checked, so...

    should ease all your worries:

    There are plenty of innocuous reasons for someone to search for a particular address.

    You're trying to claim that to "knowingly and voluntarily share their searches with their search engine provider" and other pen-register data should be out of reach from even specific police inquiry because... WHY? As ever, YOU need a positive case here that over-arches the good done.

    There are NO worries here for ordinary reasonable people. The 4th A doesn't stop ALL searching through ALL available records, innocent persons or not, only requires a REASON. Arson is well beyond justifying this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:27am

      Re: And when no crime is committed there, isn't ever checked, so

      You only have nothing to hide so long as your history and current activities are what the tyrant in charge decides are acceptable, and that can change on a whim.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:31am

        Re: Re: And when no crime is committed there, isn't ever checked

        You only have nothing to hide so long as your history and current activities are what the tyrant in charge decides are acceptable, and that can change on a whim.

        That TYRANT is GOOGLE and FACEBOOK, and you are FOOL to think actually share your notions about how to organize society, they're just amoral money-machines. The "humanist" aspects they present won't last. You will always be insufficiently pro-tyrant for them. Read 1984: power is the end in itself.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    F. Scott Fitztemplate, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:18am

    It's not a search, just a computer GREPping data.

    When Google does it for fun and profit, you're FINE with that because no person sees the "personal" info of others, right? -- It's how Google gains money, which of course as GOOGLE shills you cannot state are against, so end up repeating a self-contradictory mish-mash trying to weasel in a claim that police shouldn't use the trove of data to solve crimes.

    And YOU keep calling ME a police-state enthusiast while YOU support the corporation that enables this! -- You're living in the 21st Century where everything you do is monitored and recorded forever!

    Here's the distinction that Techdirt cannot grasp:

    You LOVE GOOGLE and other highly profitable "surveillance capitalism", cannot even suggest the collecting be limited, so must argue that criminals NOT caught is somehow a "greater good".

    While I want GOOGLE's data collecting limited (good for The Public), yet since has it, then approve PUBLIC GOOD uses of that data, as in catching criminals.

    You're self-contradictory, I'm not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    F. Scott Fitztemplate, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:25am

    At same time as you complain about data collected...

    have a button I must click to okay a TRACKING COOKIE! (Or else my screen vertical space is reduced.) Sheesh.

    Don't you know that police could potentially use that TRACKING? -- Not of me, but of your criminal pirate supporters? Easy to connect Pirate Bay views with the same advocacy of killing copyright HERE.

    Oh, and by the way: you should all recognize that Google's tracking WILL soon be used for warrants of downloaders. Inevitable. How could evil ??AAs resist such a trove?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    F. Scott Fitztemplate, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:27am

    At same time as you complain about data collected...

    have a button I must click to okay a TRACKING COOKIE! (Or else my screen vertical space is reduced.) Sheesh.

    Don't you know that police could potentially use that TRACKING? -- Not of me, but of your criminal pirate supporters? Easy to connect Pirate Bay views with the same advocacy of killing copyright HERE.

    Oh, and by the way: you should all recognize that Google's tracking WILL soon be used for warrants of downloaders. Inevitable. How could evil ??AAs resist such a trove?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      F. Scott Fitztemplate, 13 Oct 2020 @ 11:28am

      Re: At same time as you complain about data collected...

      AND that browser session was blocked from a third comment, meaning some person at Techdirt is actively monitoring and censoring viewpoint.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2020 @ 12:11pm

    The nice thing--the ineluctably lovable thing--about Google is, it's not a monopoly. You don't have to use it. You can Opt Out. You can search with Bing (if you can stand the smell), you can use throwaway iTablets and iPhones for criminal or otherwise private activity, you can protect your privacy to whatever extent you feel a need. You need very little protection other than what your own hands can provide (and governments may even provide some additional protection.

    Try opting out of government laws concerning monetizing the incendiarization of Other People's Stuff. The government comes AFTER you with violent intimidation tactics.

    That's why government access to all your data needs to be constitutionally protected, and Google access is, relatively speaking, so much smaller a problem.

    There are still problems with Other People not being careful with your data--lunch at Don's Diner, and sub-minimum-wage part-time unskilled restaurant employees have access to your credit card information, including expiration date and security code! Dishonest employees of Garmin or your choice of interactive map provider, or even a tracker surreptitiously placed on your car by your ex, may divulge travel information. Your fence knows where you gleaned last night. Use of this information is governed by Laws, which are sometimes pertinent and sometimes enforced. So yes, Facebook is a potential problem; even Google represents a potential problem. But on the scale of things to worry about, Google ranks down with rabid squirrels and Lyme disease, well below slippery bathroom floors--and not visible on a scale that contains COVID-19 and drunk drivers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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