Are Police Violating Constitutional Rights With Reverse Keyword Search Warrants?

Google is the most popular search engine in the world, with over 90% of the worldwide market share and more than 1 billion monthly users.

Most people average at least 3 Google searches per day. With Google processing around 100,000 searches every second, that equates to over 8.5 billion daily searches. You may have even used Google to find this article.

While Google is a universal household tool for quickly accessing information at our fingertips, it’s recently become a potentially unlawful means of tracking suspects. The attorneys of a suspect in a recent arson case in Denver, Colorado, are questioning the constitutionality of police use of Google search to find people who may have committed a crime.

First Person To Challenge Police Use Of Google Search Histories To Track Criminal Activity

Three teens in Denver, Colorado, have recently been charged with a deadly house fire that killed five people. Two are being tried as an adult, including a 17-year-old youth. All three plead not guilty. The attorneys of the 17-year-old recently filed documents in Denver District Court challenging the legality of the search used to find the teens.

The police found the suspects using a “reverse keyword search” to look for Google users who typed in the home address. The attorney of the 17-year-old suspect claims that police use of Google’s database of keyword searches to find suspects is unconstitutional. The suspect’s attorney also asserts that all evidence from the search should be thrown out since it was a “blind query” through billions of Google users’ searches. That is, a blind guess based on a hunch that the suspect searched for the address. The teens allegedly searched the address of the home they set on fire in August 2020, which led to their arrest.

The lawyer further claims that police violated his Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches.” The teen may be the first defendant ever to challenge police use of search histories to find suspects.

In June 2022, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil rights group, filed an amicus brief in the case. They argued that keyword warrants are “overbroad and violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the US Constitution.” In addition, The brief contends that the keyword search warrants violate the Colorado Constitution.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation further argues that citizens have constitutional rights like protected speech and the right to receive information. The police have infringed on those constitutional rights by using a reverse keyword search.

According to commentary from the 17-year-old’s attorney, “people have a privacy interest in their internet search history.” He also said that search histories archive peoples’ personal expressions. “Search engines like Google are a gateway to a vast trove of information online and the way most people find what they’re looking for. Yet, every one of those queries reveals something deeply private about a person, things they might not share with their closest friends and family.”

The Rise Of Google Search Use To Find Suspects

In recent years, police have begun to use keyword searches to find more suspects for various crimes. Some examples include a cluster of Texas bombings and a case of fraud in Minnesota. Keyword search warrants differ from traditional search warrants because police can obtain them without knowing the suspect’s name. Instead, they get a warrant seeking information that can lead them to a suspect.

Another group of privacy advocates driving the backlash on such warrants is women’s rights groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, police could use these searches to find women who have had abortions. They fear that keyword searches could potentially be a gateway for investigations of abortions in states where they are illegal.

By getting a search warrant for keyword searches, police are asking Google to hand over information about everyone who has searched for the keyword of interest. So, for example, police could get a warrant for anyone who has ever searched for a Planned Parenthood address. That information is essentially an unconstitutional tip-off that they could use to investigate people who they think are violating abortion laws.

Jennifer Lynch is the surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundations. She released a statement saying, “If Google is allowed or required to turn over information in this Colorado arson case, there is nothing to stop a court in a state that has outlawed abortion from also requiring Google to provide information on that kind of keyword search.”

Why Is It Unconstitutional For Police To Use Keyword Warrants To Find Suspects?

The lawyers of the 17-year-old Colorado juvenile are asserting that keyword warrants violate his First and Fourth Amendments rights of the US Constitution. They also claim that keyword warrants violate Sections 7 and 10 of the Colorado Constitution.

Keywords can be profoundly revealing about search engine users. The content or questions they search for can reveal their most intimate and private thoughts or concerns.

For example, many personal internet searches pertain to medical questions, information about controversial ideas like world events and politics, and the topics of gender and sexuality. These are just a few examples of how deep-seated Google searches can be, but the possibilities are limitless. The top searches on Google, according to their public data, are:

  • How to register to vote
  • How to get pregnant
  • How to have sex
  • And how to be happy alone

These are confidential and personal topics that the average person wouldn’t want the public to know they’ve queried.

Another issue with police using reverse keyword searches is that specialized users sometimes search for seemingly more incriminating information. For example, a crime novelist might search for unique ways to kill a person for storytelling purposes. A historian passionate about the civil rights era might search for discriminatory speech, and a policy analyst might look up how drugs are made and used.

A simple address search can be very telling, too. For example, if we know that someone searched for “7155 E 38th Ave, Denver,” we could infer that the user wanted an abortion since that’s the address of a Planned Parenthood branch. In the case of the Colorado teens, the reverse search tool for users who searched the address of the house set ablaze helped police arrest the teens.

With enough data, reserve keyword warrants can be specific to an individual. Even the most commonplace queries can reveal the identity of a person. To illustrate, consider a 2006 AOL publication of search history data from 650,000 users. With three months’ worth of only unclassified search history data, the New York Times could quickly identify a woman named Thelma Arnold. With that search history data, they also found out her age, that she was a widow, where she resides, has three dogs, and that she frequently searches her friends’ medical conditions.

Defense Lawyers Protect Your Constitutional Rights

Under the Fourth Amendment to the constitution, citizens are protected from unreasonable search and seizures. Hiring quality legal representation when you face criminal charges can mean the success or failure of your case.

If you are facing criminal charges, hiring experienced legal counsel to represent you and protect your legal rights is in your best interest. For more information, contact a skilled Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer today.

Sean McQuaid