The Justice Department accidentally unsealed a rare 'keyword warrant' ordering Google to hand over data on anyone who searched a victim's name, report says

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The Justice Department accidentally unsealed a rare 'keyword warrant' ordering Google to hand over data on anyone who searched a victim's name, report says
"These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance," the ACLU wrote in a letter to Google last year. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
  • The US government accidentally unsealed court records that disclosed a rare "keyword warrant," Forbes reported.
  • Google was reportedly ordered to identify anyone who searched the name, phone number, or address of a sexual-assault victim.
  • The Big Tech giant then secretly handed over user names and IP addresses to police, Forbes says.
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The Justice Department accidentally unsealed court documents that included a rare "keyword warrant," according to an exclusive Forbes report.

The warrant reportedly ordered Google to identify the user names and IP addresses of anyone searching three names, a phone number, or address related to the victim of a Wisconsin kidnapping case over a span of 16 days.

Federal investigators filed the warrant in hopes of narrowing down human trafficking and sexual assault suspects, documents reviewed by Forbes revealed.

As Insider's Isobel Hamilton has previously reported, keyword warrants demonstrate how police are increasingly able to issue broad warrants to tech companies, rather than focusing on individuals.

Before the Wisconsin case's documents were temporarily made public, only two keyword warrants had been previously unsealed. Last year, police looking into an arson attack outside the home of a witness in the R Kelly trial ordered Google to share a list of IP addresses linked to searches for the arson victim's address.

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Per CNET, investigators then obtained a warrant for the suspect's personal search history, which showed he searched for the terms: "where can i buy a .50 custom machine gun," "witness intimidation," and "countries that don't have extradition with the United States."

While some legal experts believe such warrants violate First Amendment rights by potentially punishing people for what they search online, the ACLU told Forbes that they are most concerned that they are being requested in secret.

The ACLU's New York chapter asked Google in a letter last year to oppose "the alarming growth in law enforcement searches of Google user data" through both keyword search and geofence warrants.

"These blanket warrants circumvent constitutional checks on police surveillance, creating a virtual dragnet of our religious practices, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and more," the letter said.

"As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement," a Google spokesperson told Forbes. Google did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

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