Judge issues search warrant for anyone who Googled a victim's name

A judge in Minnesota, America, has granted cops a search warrant to direct Google to provide personal details about anyone searching for a specific name.

Tony Webster, who describes himself as a web engineer, public records researcher, and policy nerd, published a portion of the warrant out of concern that administrative subpoenas and search warrants are being used for what amounts to fishing expeditions.

Under the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures must be reasonable and as such are generally limited in their scope, to balance privacy expectations. At issue is whether a warrant for the Google account data of anyone searching for a given term is unconstitutionally broad.

For Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson at least, the warrant was adequate.

According to Webster, the case involves attempted bank fraud in which an unknown party used the victim's name to try to obtain a wire transfer of $28,500. The bank relied on a faxed copy of the victim's passport to verify the transaction, but the document was faked.

In his post about the case, Webster said that Edina Police Department tried Bing and Yahoo! to learn more about the victim and found nothing useful. But searching Google Images, investigators found the photo of the victim that had been used to make the fake passport. This led them to suspect that the suspect searched Google for the victim's name.

Reached by phone, Edina police lieutenant Timothy Olson told The Register a report that investigators had sought the Google searches of everyone in the town of Edina was "blatantly inaccurate."

Olson declined to discuss what he characterized as an active case, but said the warrant was related to a felony that had been reported and that it outlined probable cause.

Indeed, the portion of the warrant presented by Webster does not ask for the Google searches of everyone in Edina. It seeks, "Any/all user or subscriber information related to the Google searches of" four variants of the victim's name over a five-week period.

The warrant describes the information sought as including, but not limited to: "name(s), address(es), telephone number(s), dates of birth, social security numbers, email addresses, payment information, account information, IP addresses, and MAC addresses of the person(s) who requested/completed the search."

Barring limitations of scope not evident in the published portion of the document, the warrant reaches beyond the town of Edina. It seeks the Google searches and associated account information of anyone, anywhere, who queried the victim's name from December 1, 2016 through January 7, 2017.

Google may not cooperate, however. The internet king has an interest in fending off overreaching governments and police to avoid becoming an on-demand data dispensary.

"We aren't able to comment on specific cases, but we will always push back when we receive excessively broad requests for data about our users," a Google spokesperson said in an email to The Register. ®

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