Compliance Management, Threat Management

Google searchers beware: Police might soon be searching for you

Google may be forced to turn over the contact information for anyone who used its search engine seeking the name of a financial fraud victim in the area around Edina, Minn.

An application for a search warrant, unearthed by journalist Tony Webster, reveals the case of law enforcement demanding that Google turn over  "any/all user or subscriber information" of anybody who conducted a search for the victim's name. This would include email addresses, payment information, MAC addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and IP addresses.

If Google complies, the demand could set a precedent unnerving to privacy advocates. The petition would, Webster wrote, reverse investigative procedures where police have a suspect in custody and search through their devices looking for evidence "by using administrative subpoenas and search warrants to compel internet and communications providers to identify anyone matching certain parameters."

The case stems from an application received by a Minnesota bank from a customer requesting a wire transfer of $28,500. While the credentials of the bank customer seemed legitimate – the suspect had faxed a copy of his passport – they were, in fact, fraudulent.

"The Edina Police Department figured out that while searching Google Images for the victim's name, they found the photo used on the fake passport, and investigators couldn't find it on Yahoo or Bing. So, they theorized the suspect must have searched Google for the victim's name while making the fake passport," Webster explained.

This theory was laid out in the Edina police's application for a search warrant, which requested of the court authorization to search "names, email addresses, account information, and IP addresses of anyone who searched variations of the victim's name over a five-week period of time."

But search warrants require supporting probable cause, not just mere suspicion or theory, Webster argued. The danger, he added, is that innocent people who happened to Google the victim's name could be swept up in the online dragnet.

Google is reportedly fighting the request.

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