Monday, October 11, 2021

REPORT: US Government Ordering Google, Yahoo, Microsoft to Provide Users’ Search Data

Source: NY Post

Published: October 6, 2021

By: Callie Patteson

The US federal government is secretly ordering Google and other search engines to track and provide data on anyone who searches certain terms through “keyword warrants,” according to a new report. 

In recent years, only two such warrants have been made public, but accidentally unsealed court documents obtained by Forbes show the government has been making these requests far more frequently. 

The unsealed warrant stemmed from a 2019 federal investigation in Wisconsin, where investigators were searching for men they believed had taken part in trafficking and sexually abusing a minor. 

In an effort to track them down, officials ordered Google to provide any information on users, including account names, IP addresses and CookieIDs, that searched the victim’s name, two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days throughout the year. 

Google provided the data in mid-2020, Forbes reported, though the document did not say how many people had their information sent to federal investigators. 

The warrant was supposed to be secret and the Justice Department only became aware of the leak after the outlet reached out for comment. The investigation is still ongoing and the warrant has since been sealed. 

Only two keyword warrants were made public before the Wisconsin case. 

Keyword warrants have been criticized by privacy experts, as they raise fears that innocent users could get caught up in a criminal investigation.

One from 2017 shows a Minnesota judge signed off on an order asking Google to provide data on any user within the city of Edina who searched a fraud victim’s name. 

The second, revealed in 2020, requested information on anyone who searched for the address of an arson victim who was also a witness in the government’s racketeering case against R. Kelly. 

Forbes identified a third unreported warrant filed in the Northern District of California in December of last year. The warrant is currently under seal and has only publicly been noted in a court docket. The information requested could be extremely broad as the warrant is titled, “Application by the United States for a Search Warrant for Google Accounts Associated with Six Search Terms and Four Search Dates.”

Following the initial report, three more keyword warrants came to light that were used in the investigation into the 2018 Austin bombings. 

The warrants appear to be very broad, ordering Google, Microsoft and Yahoo search engines to provide information on users who searched various addresses and terms related to bombs, including “low explosives” and “pipe bomb.” 

It is unclear how much data the search engines provided investigators. 

The broad orders have been criticized by privacy experts, as they raise fears that innocent users could get caught up in a criminal investigation, with one expert claiming the warrants threaten the First Amendment. 

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