Keyword warrants. Justified or another step towards a dystopian nightmare?

Should we be alarmed at Gov. powers to use keyword search history as evidence in criminal investigations?

You are reading: Keyword warrants. Justified or another step towards a dystopian nightmare?

It has been another volatile week in Facebook land.

It started badly with a whistleblower making some pretty big claims about how the company prioritised its own growth / profit over the impact that it was having on vulnerable individuals, but descended into meltdown mode as all the main Facebook properties suffered a 6hr outage.

It was interesting to see how far reaching the impact of this outage was. It wasn’t just annoying that we couldn’t chat with friends on WhatsApp, it showed how reliant some people / businesses are on Facebook / Instagram / WhatsApp and there were numerous examples of the financial impact of not being able to use the services.

There can no doubt that the digital behemoths are ridiculously powerful. They have the reach to topple governments, who must ultimately fear the influence that these platforms have over populations. As Monday showed, life is almost unimaginable without the digital platforms that we are now so reliant on for every day life.

Just how much of an impact this could have on our individual lives was driven home to me when I read about ‘keyword warrants’ this week.

In the US, the Justice Department accidentally unsealed court documents that included a “keyword warrant”. In a nutshell, a keyword warrant is a Gov order to Google to provide data on an individual who is using certain search terms. There are also “geofence warrants” that demand details of individuals who were in a certain physical location at a specified time.

On the surface of things, I am of the opinion that you don’t have much to worry about if you are not planning anything sinister. In principle, I don’t think many people would argue against giving authorities every power possible to apprehend criminals and I would be the first to celebrate locking up sex offenders / child abusers / terrorists / etc. if we can prove, beyond doubt, that they are guilty of the charges against them.

But I absolutely understand why this has caused quite a stir amongst those that are concerned about individual privacy. The implications of this are huge. Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has this to say:

“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. This is a virtual dragnet through the public’s interests, beliefs, opinions, values and friendships, akin to mind reading powered by the Google time machine. 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.”

There are clearly some massive risks of getting things radically wrong. You could easily become the victim of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the case of geofencing, or the actual intent of any search you make could be misconstrued.

What if someone else uses your phone to search for something damming? I know that my own children use my phone occasionally – what if they are curious about something that could look very bad if a keyword warrant was issued, but was actually a genuine request to understand something? e.g. they may hear news of a terrorist attack and then use Google to find out what a pipe bomb is. It may sound far fetched, but it definitely possible and I am sure that, if we are honest, there are probably skeletons in all our search closets?

I agree with Jennifer Granick that this needs public debate. In a world where we are endlessly clicking on cookie consent forms ‘for our privacy’, it most definitely doesn’t feel right that our search history could be used as evidence. I have to confess that it feels extremely Orwellian.

It is also another reminder about just how powerful the internet giants are. They know everything about us. That is a bit terrifying.

(Exits stage left to investigate VPNs with more interest…)



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