According to Ars Technica, police in suburban Minnesota have obtained a court order requiring Google to divulge the identities of people who searched for the name or images of the local victim of financial fraud. It’s clear that the warrant is overly broad and would potentially open the door for similar “lazy” requests by police across the country.
Search warrants and related law are governed by the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. Typically, a law enforcement official must show “probable cause” to a judge to justify the warrant. Warrants may be issued against third parties that are not the subject of criminal investigation but may have information relevant to the investigation.
The warrant in this case seeks the identity and associated information of all users who searched for the victim’s name, including home addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, email addresses, payment information (e.g., credit cards) and IP and MAC addresses. Obviously, the privacy implications of such a broad request are disturbing.
Potentially, if someone read or heard a news story about the victim and searched for more information, that individual would be swept up in the scope of the warrant, although there was no probable cause to believe that casual searcher was involved. The police should have identified particular suspects and then sought their information, rather than trying to use Google to do preliminary investigative work.
If such a broad warrant were allowed and duplicated in other jurisdictions, local law enforcement would have incentives to use Google as a first stop in their investigations. They could make vague and expansive requests for information, hoping to identify potential suspects or perhaps impermissibly seeking information on “suspicious” persons on the basis of thin evidence. Google would then become an extension of police power and an instrument of potential abuse.
While Google and local law enforcement apparently declined to comment, it’s likely that Google is trying to narrow the scope of the warrant. The video below explains how Google treats search warrants.