April 13, 2024

Browser Beware: Keyword Warrants and Evolving Internet Privacy Law

On Dec. 12, 2023, Google announced it would no longer centrally store users’ location history data. Location information will now only be saved temporarily on users’ devices, where the data can be erased. This significant policy change may effectively end the practice of seeking “geofence warrants,” a mechanism used by law enforcement to identify criminal suspects through searches of Google’s database for devices present at a crime scene. Without Google’s reservoir of location data, a geofence warrant is futile.

Police continue to utilize other digital tools to track suspects. One such tool, “keyword warrants,” poses an even greater threat of privacy invasion. Like geofence warrants, the practice of seeking a keyword warrant is a technique of dragnet policing. A keyword warrant requires the production of all IP addresses for anyone who inputs a particular word or phrase into an internet search engine. The search results are then used to identify a device user. Asking Google or another internet service provider (ISP) to identify the person who typed a particular word or phrase requires no evidence of that individual’s involvement in crime. Such requests instead invade innocent users’ private information and inject it into criminal investigations, all without any basis other than a user entering a phrase in a search engine on their home computer. 

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