Law enforcement agencies are always seeking innovative but questionable methods to solve crimes. One such method is the keyword search warrant. Unlike conventional warrants, these warrants do not target a person or a place but are based on specific search terms used by individuals on search engines, social media, and other online platforms. In other words, agencies are finding information on everyone who searched for a specific search term.
When law enforcement agencies suspect a crime, they can request a keyword search warrant from a court. This warrant compels tech companies to hand over data on who searched for specific terms. For example, if the police are investigating a burglary, they might ask a search engine for data on who looked up “how to pick a lock” in a certain location.
The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. Critics argue that keyword search warrants are inherently overbroad and indiscriminate, potentially infringing on this fundamental right. These warrants often capture data on individuals who have no connection to the crime under investigation.
In a recent legal filing to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with several other advocacy groups, has vehemently opposed the use of keyword search warrants.
We obtained a copy of the filing for you here.
The EFF, alongside the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (PACDL), has challenged the issuance of such a warrant to Google in this particular case. They assert that this practice could lead to a widespread invasion of privacy for all Google users and potentially extend to any search engine user.
Andrew Crocker, EFF’s Surveillance Litigation Director, has strongly criticized these warrants, emphasizing their incompatibility with constitutional rights. “Keyword search warrants are totally incompatible with constitutional protections for privacy and freedom of speech and expression,” Crocker stated.
He highlighted the dangers of these warrants implicating innocent individuals who might have innocuously searched for terms that law enforcement links to criminal activity.
Another dimension of concern is the intimate nature of the data that search engines like Google accumulate. People often turn to search engines for inquiries they would hesitate to share with others, resulting in a digital repository of their most personal thoughts and queries. Law enforcement’s demand for identities based on specific keyword searches threatens to expose this sensitive data.
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