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The US ordered Google to identify anyone who searched for this person

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The United States Government issued a secret order to Google to identify all the people who searched the internet using certain terms.

In particular, the authorities were interested in anyone who has sought personal information about a minor who has been abducted and allegedly a victim of sexual assault. This information includes the victim’s name, her address, and the full name of her mother.

According to the order, Google had to provide the data – Google accounts and IP addresses – of the people who carried out these searches throughout 16 days of 2019, which is when the events occurred. The company ended up releasing the data in mid-2020, Forbes reports, although the number of users involved is unknown.

This type of request is known in the US as “keyword warrants” and, although it is not the first time it has been carried out, it has been the widest in terms of the number of search terms included.

The keyword warrants controversy

There have only been two more cases when such orders issued by the US authorities have been made public. The first time it took place was in 2017 when a Minnesota judge signed a court order demanding information from Google about anyone who has searched for the name of a fraud victim.

The second case occurred most recently in 2020 when authorities were interested in the data of anyone who has sought the address of a victim who was a key witness under protection in a case against singer R. Kelly. His home was set on fire.

Although Google actually complies with thousands of court orders each year, those related to keywords are the ones that generate the most controversy. In many cases, the authorities already have a Google account in particular whose information they want to receive and that they know is related to a crime, highlights the media.

However, keyword-based warrants are more like a kind of fishing, in which agents are hoping to find suspects out of the government’s sight. In fact, these requests somewhat resemble so-called geo-barrier orders, in which researchers ask Google to provide them with the data of all the people who were in a certain place at a certain time.

This latest case shows that Google continues to comply with controversial US government court orders despite their dubious legality, Forbes notes. In addition, the other danger that these orders carry is that they can involve innocent people who by pure chance could have searched for certain terms.

The government ensures that very few people will search for specific names, addresses and phone numbers in a given period of time. However, privacy experts are concerned that such orders could serve as a precedent and could run counter to the US Fourth Amendment, which should protect against violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy by a government official.

There are also fears about the violation of the First Amendment on freedom of expression since Google users could experience anxiety about the personal information that could end up in the hands of officials just because of the words they searched on the internet.

“Trawling through Google’s search history database enables police to identify people merely based on what they might have been thinking about, for whatever reason, at some point in the past. This is a virtual dragnet through the public’s interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships, akin to mind reading powered by the Google time machine,” explained Jennifer Granick, a surveillance and cybersecurity advisor for the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of the fears that Granick expresses is that these research methods will inevitably reach innocent people, especially if the search terms or periods of time investigated are not precise enough. And worst of all, the expert adds, is that the Police are doing it in secret, which isolates the issue from public debate and any regulation.

In fact, this latest case also had to remain secret, but the court order was released after it was accidentally revealed by the Justice Department in September 2021. Before it was removed from public access, Forbes studied thoroughly said document.

The data the US Government may request

Although there is mainly talk about the identities of Google accounts and IP addresses, in reality, the officials of the North American country have more interests. Thus, in the latter case, the officials also hoped that Google could provide them with the CookieID data of all the users who carried out the suspicious searches.

These CookieIDs are essentially a collection of identifiers that are used to group all searches made from a certain device, even if the users in question were not logged into their Google accounts.

A final worrying aspect of the court order for keywords issued by the judges has been the fact that they published the name of the abduction victim, along with his Facebook profile, phone number and address, which is a potential violation of the minor’s privacy.

The document where all this data came from has already been withdrawn from public access, but this happened only after Forbes contacted the Department of Justice for comment on the situation. With this, the media highlights that in recent years the disclosure of the personal data of victims of underage sexual abuse has become something normal for the authorities.

Image Credit: Getty

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