Law enforcement agencies can track you based on what you search on Google. The company gave US law enforcement the IP addresses of everyone who had searched for the address of the victim of an arson, in an attempt to catch the person who committed it, CNET reported. Based on this information, police zeroed in on their suspect — a Micheal Williams, who is said to have burned down the victim’s car been parked outside her home in a Florida town. Williams had reportedly searched the victim’s address on Google just hours before he committed the arson.

This is perhaps one of the most patent examples of how everything you do on the internet — including Google searches — can be tied together and traced back to you.

How it unfolded

Micheal Williams is an associate of singer R Kelly who is currently under investigation for sexual assault. The victim of the arson is a witness in Kelly’s case. Williams reportedly burnt the car down in June 2020. Though Williams was arrested in August, the court filing was made public this week. Detroit News reporter Robert Snell tweeted about the filing on Tuesday.

Investigators looking into the case served Google with a warrant for information of all users who had searched for the address of the victim’s house close to the time of the crime. Police got a list of IP addresses, which were ultimately traced to a device used by Williams. Furthermore, Williams’ phone was found to have been served by cell towers close to the house around the time of the crime.

CNET reported that after police were able to link Williams to the crime, they served Google with another warrant for his search history. They found that Williams had searched for phrases such as “where can i buy a .50 custom machine gun”, “witness intimidation” and “countries that don’t have extradition with the United States”.

Why is this important?

What the police served Google with can be termed as a “keyword warrant”. Law enforcement agencies are known to serve internet companies with warrants to trace the usage of a particular suspect’s activity, however in this case, the police searched of everyone who searched for a particular phrase on Google.

While the phrase in question  — the arson victim’s address — may be a unique phrase that is unlikely to have been searched by many people, it shows how Google can be forced to give up details of everyone who may have searched something that can be used against them by by law enforcement agencies. For instance, if you search the phrase “how to make a bomb”, Google throws thousands of results. It is unlikely that you really want to make a bomb, and are just curious to find out if instructions to do so are really available on the internet. But if law enforcement agencies are made aware of your curiosity by Google, it could get get you in trouble.

Keyword warrants are not entirely new in the US. Three years ago, police in the state of a Minnesota were able to secure a warrant for Google data on anyone who searched a particular name across the whole city of Edina. The police asked for information of anyone who had searched the name of a fraud victim. They hoped to catch the person who had defrauded the victim based on the hunch that they would have searched the victim’s name.

We could not find any reports of keyword warrants being carried out anywhere in India so far.

Geo-fence warrants: Keyword warrants are quite similar to another from of dragnet — geo-fence warrants, which require companies like Google to give up information of all users recorded at a particular location during a specific period of time, mostly around the time a crime could have possibly occurred.

Such a warrant recently got a Florida man in trouble. Google gave information about Zachary McCoy, whose location it had traced to the scene of a burglary. McCoy was riding a bike at the time, and had reportedly passed the burglarised home thrice around the time of the crime. McCoy had become the lead suspect just on the basis of this information. It was after several months of legal battles that McCoy managed to clear his name in February of this.

The CNET report noted that Google has been receiving increasingly more geofence warrants in the past few years; it was serves with 15 time more warrants in 2018 compared with 2017, five times more in 2019 than in 2018. Google’s director of law enforcement and information security Richard Salgado told the publication geofence warrants were only a small fraction (less than 1%) of the overall demands they receive. However, the company declined to disclose to CNET how many keyword warrants it’s received in the last three years. 

It may be noted that geofencing can also be used for surveillance outside of law enforcement. Earlier this year, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments were some of the states to use geofencing to ensure that people do not violate their Covid-19 quarantines. Maharashtra police are also reported to have used this technology for a similar purpose.

The Indian government’s Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL) recently floated a tender for a smartwatch of sorts that could be worn by Covid-19 patients. These devices would track the patients’ location and geofence them. The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) called the technology “restrictive” and “invasive”, and called for BECIL to amend its tender.

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