Using Google today? The cops may be watching.
Data and privacy activist Tony Webster writes on his blog that Spire Credit Union alerted authorities that a customer named Douglas transferred a large sum of money from a line of credit. It was a con.
Someone had stolen Douglas’ identity (the last name isn’t being provided) and police figured whoever did might have used Google to try to get some information about the victim first.
So the authorities got a court order to search Google’s records for the identity of everyone who might’ve searched for Douglas on Google over a five-week period, Webster says.
But search warrants require supporting probable cause, not just mere suspicion or theory. For that reason, “anyone-who-accessed” search warrants like Detective Lindman’s can be risky to execute, as evidence could potentially be thrown out in a pretrial motion. Moreover, it’s possible that such a wide net could catch completely routine and non-criminal searches of the victim’s name by neighbors, prospective employers or business associates, journalists, or friends.
Could this type of search warrant be used to wrongly ensnare innocent people? If Google were to provide personal information on anyone who Googled the victim’s name, would Edina Police raid their homes, or would they first do further investigative work? The question is: what comes next? If you bought a pressure cooker on Amazon a month before the Boston bombing, do police get to know about it?
Under a probable cause standard, no way.
But alas, Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson signed Edina’s warrant and Detective Lindman served it about 20 minutes later. Because it’s an active investigation, there’s no way to know yet if Google challenged the warrant for being broad, vague, or unlawful, or if Google even has the data to provide.
The police want Google to turn over names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, email addresses, IP and MAC addresses of everyone who used the search term.
“We could have people who are not searching for this individual who are going to be swept up in this,” Theresa Nelson, of the ACLU of Minnesota tells the Star Tribune.
“I’m concerned both about ensnaring innocent people but also … that this become a pattern,” Rob Kahn, a privacy law professor at the University of St. Thomas, tells the paper. “It’s certainly a scary slippery slope that they’re setting up here.”
Ars Technica said Google is suggesting it will fight the warrant.
“We aren’t able to comment on specific cases, but we will always push back when we receive excessively broad requests for data about our users,” Google said in an e-mail to Ars.
Why is there a slippery slope to begin with? Because too many people sliding down it figure if you didn’t do anything wrong, what’s the big deal?