It’s been 20 years since 9/11, which means it’s been 20 years since the American public debate about government surveillance under laws like the Patriot Act. Looking back and seeing if commenters should have access to things like government library records, somewhat fun to see collisions with hot-button topics. Two decades, two (plus) wars, and subsequent many open warrantless government surveillance programs, the idea that the biggest threat to freedom is that Uncle Sam checked chemistry books from the Connecticut branch library is almost interesting to find.
We have surveillance fatigue. Many people just assume that everything they do online is immediately hovered and some huge deserts are stored forever in the data center of the National Security Agency. It’s not a bad heuristic, but it still is Something The Fed is a procedural hurdle in getting their hands on what they want.
One of them was recently circulated by court documents Forbes. This is called a “keyword warrant” and is basically an open request for information about anyone searching for certain terms online. Instead of the government saying, “I want a Google search for John Door, the suspect in the arson,” it is, “I want information from people who have done a Google search for ‘arson.’
The problem is obvious. In the first context, investigators have already determined a suspect on the basis of some evidence that they have presented to a judge, the norm for requesting a search warrant. In the second context, the government is asking search engines to provide information that they can use for any reason. This is an open invitation for a fishing expedition. And many innocent people can be caught in the net.
Keyword warrants are not new, but they are rare, and they are rarely known by the general public. The Forbes Documentation provides hard evidence of the government’s judicial enforcement of keyword warrants in the 2019 Wisconsin lawsuit to find men suspected of kidnapping and abuse. Investigators asked Google for data on anyone who searched for the victim’s name, his mother’s name and his address within 16 days.
Other known uses of keyword warrants include a Google search for the address of the victim of the arson, which witnessed a fraud case against Kruner and Kelly in 2020, and Google searched for the victim in Minnesota in 2001. It’s not just Google. Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that while investigating the 2011 Austin bombings, Microsoft and Yahoo were given keyword warrants for searches such as “pipe bombs” and “less explosives.” In addition, Forbes A fifth keyword warrant request was able to be found in California in late 2020, but it was only mentioned in the court docket, so we don’t know the amount of the order.
Normal objections apply. One might say, “Well, if you’re looking for a ‘pipe bomb’ in Austin right before the pipe bombing, you have a good chance of a pipe bomber.” There’s also a chance that you’re a lazy googler fan of the somewhat lazy-named Pensacola folkpunk band “This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb” and all the traps and costumes of the Austin-based “anti-installation” aren’t good. You can fit some profiles that can be pipe bombers. And if you’re looking for your old favorite tunes, “The Black Panther Song” and “Murder Bike,” the unfortunate time of the bombing of a big city, well, maybe you’ve become an interested person. Or maybe you’ve been on the police radar in general, because you’re worried about the days of anti-Bush protest songs.
It’s not comforting that we only know about a few examples of keyword warrants, either. First of all, these are just warrants that have been unveiled so far. But more fundamentally, we now know for sure that we can only proceed with some investigation for the content of our question. Think about everything you type on Google. Do you want the Fed to sort you out based on the weirdest thought that enters the search bar?
Okay, at least more people are learning about keyword warrants. And fortunately, there are options. Major search engines like Google and Bing and Yahoo Search track users by default and store search history in their huge data center. That way they can comply with such warrants in the first place.
Alternative search engines that are privacy-based do not track users and do not save their search history. DuckDuckGo, for example, provides the same results you get from a Bing search, but with enhanced privacy protection. Don’t like the idea of relying on the results that a big tech company has decided to spit? You can use bold search, which is indexed independently, which means it doesn’t use the algorithmic massage you use with mainstream engines. Want to have complete control over what indexing you use with free and open source software? You probably don’t need to talk about Surrex. All of these options are attractive to people who are concerned about things like keyword warrants.
The existence of good alternatives is good news. Another issue is to at least ask the investigators. People have this idea that your local police department can automatically hear every Alexa device or something. Again, this is not a bad idea to look at your behavior. But people who falsely believe that the government is powerful can feel powerless. It is not productive.
But it cuts both ways. We wouldn’t have known about the warrant request if the journalists and staff hadn’t accidentally or frustratedly gotten their hands on it. There was no public debate. The vast majority probably don’t care too much. The state of surveillance has worn us so thoroughly that we accept it as a fact of life. You may be troubled by the prospect of systematic reform of the heroic masses in the veins of the Wounded Church Commission. Nowadays, it is not very important for your personal life. Just use a privacy-respected search engine and encourage your loved ones too.