Privacy Concerns with Use of Reverse Keyword Searches by Law Enforcement
Law enforcement has a new weapon in their arsenal that has privacy advocates concerned. Lately, law enforcement has increasingly used “reverse keyword searches,” also known as “keyword warrants,” as investigative tools to find which suspects to investigate.
Recent Use of Reverse Keyword Searches in Arson Case
Just recently, in an arson case in Denver, Colorado, law enforcement requested the court order Google to comply with a reverse keyword search of the house address where a fire occurred. The judge approved the request, which required Google to tell law enforcement who searched for the home address in the fifteen days leading up to the fire. Typically, when thus ordered, Google will reveal the IP addresses of computers that searched for the address as well as relevant Google accounts connected to the search. With the information in hand, the investigators arrested three teenagers in connection with the crime, based on the information provided by Google.
But now, the defense attorney for one of the defendants has asked the judge to throw out all the reverse keyword search evidence, arguing his client was subjected to an unreasonable search, which violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Fourth Amendment Center has stated that all citizens should be concerned about the implications of such searches. Specifically, they have stated that there is a fundamental privacy interest in a person’s Internet searches, which should be protected against arbitrary searches. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another well-known privacy advocacy organization, also plans to file an amicus brief in the case, arguing against reverse keyword searches.
Privacy Concerns from Reverse Keyword Searches
The legal arguments against reverse keyword searches center around the fact that law enforcement has been using keyword warrants to find suspects instead of using them to find out more information on a subject upon which they have already investigated. For example, privacy advocates argue that the other users that had innocently searched for the Denver, Colorado address during that fifteen-day period were subject to unreasonable searches without ever knowing it. Those users had their entire search history examined by both Google employees and law enforcement officers that they never met. Privacy advocates note that, without proper restrictions on reverse keyword searches, the long arm of the law’s current use could lead to them arresting citizens that searched for terms for innocuous reasons. As an example, they note that a person searching for the specific term could trigger law enforcement investigation or surveillance, regardless of whether the person was searching that term for educational reasons or other completely innocent reasons. As such, it behooves legal counsel to keep an eye on reverse keyword searches and their increased use by law enforcement.
Key Takeaways on Privacy Concerns from the Use of Keyword Warrants by Law Enforcement
Reverse keyword searches are increasingly being used by law enforcement. This raises privacy concerns because:
Law enforcement uses the searches to find suspects instead of using them to find out more information on suspects that have already been identified;
Police have been reviewing citizens’ Internet search histories without their knowledge and consent;
Without restrictions on reverse keyword search uses, citizens could be arrested or surveilled based on their search history.