The Justice Department accidentally unsealed a rare 'keyword warrant' ordering Google to hand over data on anyone who searched a victim's name, report says

Google New York Office
"These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance," the ACLU wrote in a letter to Google last year. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
  • The US government accidentally unsealed court records about a "keyword warrant," Forbes reported.

  • Google was ordered to identify anyone who searched the name and address of a sexual-assault victim.

  • The Big Tech giant then secretly handed over usernames and IP addresses to police, Forbes said.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The Justice Department accidentally unsealed court documents that included a rare "keyword warrant," an exclusive Forbes report said.

The warrant ordered Google to identify the usernames and IP addresses of anyone searching three names, a phone number, or address related to the victim of a Wisconsin kidnapping case over a span of 16 days, the report said.

Federal investigators filed the warrant in hopes of narrowing down human-trafficking and sexual-assault suspects, documents reviewed by Forbes showed.

As Insider's Isobel Hamilton previously reported, keyword warrants demonstrate how police are increasingly able to issue broad warrants to tech companies, rather than focusing on people.

Before the Wisconsin case's documents were temporarily made public, only two keyword warrants had been previously unsealed. Last year, police looking into an arson attack outside the home of a witness in the R. Kelly trial ordered Google to share a list of IP addresses linked to searches for the arson victim's address.

CNET reported that investigators then obtained a warrant for the suspect's personal search history, which showed he searched for these terms: "where can i buy a .50 custom machine gun," "witness intimidation," and "countries that don't have extradition with the United States."

While some legal experts believe that such warrants violate First Amendment rights by potentially punishing people for what they search online, the ACLU told Forbes that it was most concerned that the warrants were being requested in secret.

The ACLU's New York chapter asked Google in a letter last year to oppose "the alarming growth in law enforcement searches of Google user data" through both keyword-search and geofence warrants.

"These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance, creating a virtual dragnet of our religious practices, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and more," the letter said.

"As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement," a Google spokesperson told Forbes. Google did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

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