The 20th anniversary of 9/11 marks the 20th anniversary of America’s first public discussions about surveillance laws such as the PATRIOT Act. It is quite amusing to see the clashing opinions of commentators over hot topics such as whether government should be able to access library records. It’s almost funny to think that Uncle Sam, after two wars (plus), and several exposed warrantless surveillance programs by the government, is the greatest threat to liberty.
Surveillance fatigue is a common problem. People assume that all they do online will immediately be hacked up and stored at a huge desert National Security Agency database center. Although it’s a valid heuristic, this is still a problem. SomeThe feds face procedural challenges to gain access to the information they need.
They were recently made public in court records obtained by ForbesIt is possible to do this. The “keyword warrant”, also known as a “keyword request”, is basically an open demand for information regarding anyone who searches online for specific terms. The government is not going to say, “I want John Doe, arson suspect John Doe’s Google searches,” but rather, it says, “I need information on all those who Google searched for the term ‘arson’.”
It is obvious that the problem exists. It is evident that investigators in the first scenario have determined the suspect by presenting evidence to a judge. That’s the usual standard for seeking a search warrant. The government requests data from search engines in the second scenario. The government is inviting anyone to join a fishing expedition. It’s possible for innocent individuals to be trapped in the net.
Although keyword warrants aren’t new, they are very rare and are often not known to the general public. Keyword warrants are not new, but they are rare and little-known by the general public. ForbesDocuments provide evidence of the government’s exercise of a keyword warrant by the court in 2019 Wisconsin case. The documents are proof that it was judicially exercising a keyword warrant. Google provided data to investigators on all persons who used the victim’s address, mother’s name and name over 16 days.
Another use of keywords warrants is the demand for information about Google searches that result in an address for an arson victim. This victim was also a witness to the case against R. Kelly, crooner in 2020. In 2017, Google searches were made for Minnesota victims of fraud. This is not limited to Google. Jennifer Lynch from the Electronic Frontier Foundation details that keywords warrants were issued to Microsoft and Yahoo in order for them to search on terms like “pipe bomb” or “low explosives” during the investigation into the Austin bombings of 2018. Additionally ForbesWe were able to locate a California fifth keyword warrant request for late 2020. However, it wasn’t noted in court dockets so we are not sure what the scope of this order was.
You can raise the normal objections. You could also say that you are a piper if you search for “pipe bomb” in Austin just before several pipe bombings. You might also be a fan, or lazy Googler, of Pensacola’s defunct folkpunk group “This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb” and you have all of the trappings of an Austin-based anti-establishment ne’er-do well. It’s possible that you fit the description of an investigator looking for a pipe bomber. You might be a potential person of interest if someone happened to find your favorite songs, “The Black Panther Song” or “Murder Bike”, during a spate of attacks on major cities. Maybe you are just on the radar of police because you long for anti-Bush songs.
We don’t know of many instances where keyword warrants have been served. This is not encouraging. This is not the complete list of warrants known to have been served. We know that our query content is enough to warrant an investigation. Consider what you put into Google. Are you willing for the federal government to examine you on the basis of any strange thought that you typed into Google?
At least, people know more about keyword warrants. There are many alternatives. Search engines giants like Google, Bing, Yahoo Search and Bing track their users automatically and store searches in huge data centers. They can then comply with warrants.
Other search engines, which are privacy-focused, do not track or store search histories. DuckDuckGo is an example. It provides the exact same search results as Bing, but has enhanced privacy protections. Do you not like the thought of depending on what a large tech company produces? Brave Search can be used. It is independent indexed. Brave Search does not employ the same algorithmic massaging as mainstream engines. You can have complete control over the indexing that you use with free, open-source software. You don’t probably need me to explain about searx. People who are concerned about keywords warrants will find all these options attractive.
Good news is that there are good options. Investigators only had to question one more thing. Many people believe that the local police can listen in to every Alexa device. This is a good assumption that can be used to influence your behavior. Falsely believing the government is all-powerful can lead to people feeling powerless. This is not productive.
However, this applies equally to both. The warrant requests wouldn’t have been known if journalists or activists had not accidentally, persistently, gotten their hands on them. The issue was not up for public discussion. It is possible that the vast majority of people don’t care at all. Because the surveillance state is so ingrained in our lives, we accept it as an everyday fact. You might be skeptical about public procedural reforms in heroic fashion, such as the Church Commission. It doesn’t really matter what your private life looks like these days. Use a search engine that respects privacy and share it with your family members.