OK Google, Create Cyber Dystopia: US Gov’t Reportedly Asks Tech Giant to Track Users by Search Terms

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Google search - Sputnik International, 1920, 06.10.2021
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The Mountain View, California-based tech giant presents itself as a company committed to ethics and user privacy, pledging not to use cutting-edge AI for military purposes or surveillance, for example. At the same time, right groups have accused Google and other tech companies of operating via a “surveillance-based business model.”
US government investigators ordered Google to provide them with information on users based on search terms – including names, addresses and phone numbers – a court document accidentally unsealed by the Justice Department and seen by media has revealed.
Forbes was able to review the document, which was resealed after the DoJ was contacted for comment, saying it related to a manhunt by authorities in Wisconsin against individuals accused of trafficking and sexually abusing a minor. Contacting Google in 2019, authorities ordered the company to provide information about the IP addresses and account information of any users who had searched for the victim’s name, address, and two different spellings of her mother’s name. Google was said to have complied with the request and provided the sought after information in mid-2020.

The data request outlined in the warrant is an example of a so-called “keyboard warrant” – a rarely-publicised, secretly-issued court document ordering the search engine giant to provide user data to authorities which Google otherwise insists is secure and private.

It’s not known how many keyboard warrants have been issued by US authorities to date, with only a handful ever publicised – including a 2020 request seeking information on suspects accused of arson against a witness in a racketeering case against singer R Kelly, and a 2017 case in Minnesota in which the company was asked to provide information on anyone who searched for a fraud victim’s name across one urban area. Authorities are also known to have deployed the warrant during the investigation into the deadly 2018 bombings in Austin, Texas.
Although authorities have justified the use of secret keyboard warrants in the hunt for suspected criminals, privacy activists have expressed fears that innocent bystanders can easily be swept up in the digital snooping, particularly in instances where search terms are vague or the timeframe involved is extensive.
The ACLU and other privacy rights groups fear keyboard warrants have the potential to break constitutional protections against unreasonable search and freedom of speech.
“Trawling through Google’s search history database enables police to identify people merely based on what they might have been thinking about, for whatever reason, at some point in the past,” Jennifer Granick, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer specialising in surveillance and cybersecurity, told Forbes.
“This never-before-possible technique threatens First Amendment interests and will inevitably sweep up innocent people, especially if the keyword terms are not unique and the time frame not precise. To make matters worse, police are currently doing this in secret, which insulates the practice from public debate and regulation,” the lawyer added.
In addition to IP addresses, account information and search information, authorities making keyboard warrant-based requests are known to have been interested in CookieIDs – a tool used to group together searches from a particular device over a certain time period –allowing users to be identified even if he or she is not logged into Google to link them to existing accounts.
Google insists that its requests from law enforcement are dealt with in a “rigorous process…designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement.”

The so-called keyboard warrants are not the only digital tool used by authorities in recent years to search for potential lawbreakers, with another – known as a geofence warrant,” requiring the company to provide information on computer or cellphone data of anyone in a particular area where a crime is suspected to have been committed. A 2019 report found that federal investigators collected the location history data on nearly 1,500 phones using just two warrants – with the total coverage area spread across 29,400 square metres of space.

As with keyboard warrants, Google has insisted that geofence warrants are perfectly legal, and stressed that it only produces “information that identifies specific users when we are legally required to do so.”
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While Google has stood out from other US tech giants, including Facebook and Microsoft, in its promises to protect privacy and stay away from potentially unethical behaviour – such as developing controversial technologies for the military – the company has nevertheless garnered animosity amid regular reports demonstrating how these public commitments are breached. In 2018, for example, an investigation by the Associated Press found that Google Maps continued to track the location data of users who had deactivated the function on their phones. In 2020, users launched a $5 billion class action lawsuit against Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., after it was revealed that the Chrome browser’s so-called "incognito mode" continues to track user activity through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, and other applications and plug-ins.
Google has been implicated in the deployment of controversial "contract tracing" apps on behalf of governments amid the coronavirus pandemic, and has been accused along with Facebook by Amnesty International of operating a “surveillance-based business model” which violates basic human rights.
In August, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that it had tapped Google and other tech firms to set up a new agency for cyber defence in a private-public, “whole-of-nation” campaign criticised for its potential to further concentrate power in the hands of the state and big tech.
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