On June 11, 2020, an SUV was set on fire outside the Florida residence of a witness involved in a federal racketeering case against R&B musician R. Kelly. A few days later on June 15, the governemnt issued a search warrant to Google for data on any users who searched for the witness’s address around the time of the arson. Police were then able to isolate a single IP address from that data that contained other searches deemed to be suspicious. These investigative methods were discovered via court records which were unsealed several months later in October.
There are two main problems with what occurred here between one of the most powerful technology corporations and a government entity.
1. Blanket Data Collection and Analysis
Blanket keyword search warrants mean that data is collected on many innocent individuals who are then treated as criminals until police find a reason to rule them out. As Reclaim The Net reported:
[…] an unknown number of IP addresses were also handed over by Google. Those IP addresses were all investigated as if they were suspects in this crime, […] These “keyword warrants” are no different from geofence warrants, where law enforcement asks Google for everyone who’s been in a certain location at a given time.
2. Data Retention
Now that law enforcement has solved the case, what happens to the data they collected on innocent people? Is it stored in perpetuity by various government agencies? Is it deleted? Even then, can we ever be sure that it is really deleted? Reclaim The Net continued:
There’s also no information available on what law enforcement does with the “noise” – the information they gather while investigating all the dead end IP addresses on that list before finding their target. For all we know, even after all those innocent people are ruled out, their data remains in the hands of law enforcement.
To be quite honest, we should never rely on Google, or any corporation, to challenge “illegitimate” search warrants in court. Assuming it would accomplish anything, the government would simply change the rules or start issuing these warrants from a secret court. Additionally, these types of warrants are becoming more and more common, and corporations are happy to comply. Instead, we must protect our privacy in order to ensure corporations don’t have so much of our data to share or sell in the first place.
A good first step that requires little to no effort is to use a search engine that does not collect user data (e.g. DuckDuckGo). However, the best thing we can do is learn about privacy-enhancing technology. For example, start learning about anonymous networks such as Tor and i2p that significantly increase your privacy by anonymizing internet traffic. To get started right away, you can download the Tor Web Browser which contains many privacy protection features in addition to utlizing the Tor network for surfing the web.