Google Hands Over Data to Police Based on Searches

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A recently disclosed court document regarding the R. Kelly case revealed that Google has been giving law enforcement authorities data based on a list of query keywords used on the search engine, said CNet. The data was used to identify a suspect.

The police have been looking for a suspect in a witness intimidation incident related to R. Kelly’s sexual offense case. Back in August, they were able to arrest Michael Williams with arson and witness tampering charges.

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Williams, who is Kelly’s associate, is accused of burning the car of a witness to the singer’s sex offense investigation.

Google Hands Over Data to Police

The July court document revealed that the police were able to pinpoint Williams as a suspect by asking Google to give a list of users who searched for particular keywords they provided.

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According to the file, the police sent a search warrant to Google asking for information about “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

The company complied and provided the internet protocol (IP) addresses of such users. Williams was tied to the incident using his IP address, which was connected to a phone number he uses.

After this, law enforcement confirmed his location around the time of the arson using his phone records, specifically his device’s location data.

CNet said that this is a reversal of the typical way law enforcement acquires such data. Usually, they ask companies to provide the search keywords of an already known suspect. Meanwhile, the search warrant served to Google remains undisclosed.

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project executive director Albert Fox Cahn commented, “This ‘keyword warrant’ evades the Fourth Amendment checks on police surveillance.”

He added, “When a court authorizes a data dump of every person who searched for a specific term or address, it’s likely unconstitutional.”

CNet remarked that so-called ‘keyword warrants’ “are similar to geofence warrants, in which police make requests to Google for data on all devices logged in at a specific area and time.” There is an upward trend in the number of geofencing data received by Google from the police.

In light of this revelation, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado clarified that they value and protect user privacy while complying with law enforcement.

He expounded, “We require a warrant and push to narrow the scope of these particular demands when overly broad.” Salgado also mentioned that the company also objects in court when called for.

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