On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court made a pivotal decision about using Google search data in criminal cases. This decision, drawing significant media and legal attention, centers on the use of “reverse keyword warrants.”
Law enforcement agencies have recently adopted reverse keyword warrants. Unlike traditional warrants that target a specific individual or location, these focus on a keyword or phrase. Then, they ask companies like Google for data on all users who searched that keyword in a certain timeframe.
In this specific case, Seymour v. Colorado, Denver police investigating an arson incident, which killed five, executed a search warrant for IP addresses that had used Google over the previous 15 days to search for address of the home where the fire took place. Google, after some hesitation, handed over the IP addresses. which ultimately led investigators to arrest three teenage suspects.
According to the police investigation that used Google’s keyword data, Gavin Seymour had searched the property’s address multiple times prior to the fire. Lawyers for Seymour contended that the keyword warrant was an unconstitutional search, marking the first known challenge to the legality of such warrants.
In an amicus brief, nonprofit research center Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) expressed concerns about the potential privacy implications of reverse keyword warrants. EPIC emphasized that such warrants could expose vast amounts of sensitive personal data to law enforcement without a valid basis.
Specifically, EPIC pointed out that after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year, several states moved to criminalize abortion. If reverse keyword warrants are deemed constitutional, individuals seeking information about abortions or other reproductive health issues could be at risk of investigation and prosecution.
The ruling was not unanimous, with Justice Monica Márquez expressing strong dissent and cautioning that the decision could provide law enforcement with unprecedented access to individuals’ private lives. In its split decision, however, the court stated its intention that Monday’s verdict be limited in scope to the case at hand, adding: “If dystopian problems emerge, as some fear, the courts stand ready to hear argument regarding how we should rein in law enforcement’s use of rapidly advancing technology.”
Nationwide impact of keyword search warrants
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision is expected to have far-reaching implications. As the first court to rule on reverse keyword warrants’ constitutionality, its verdict will likely influence courts across the nation. Furthermore, the verdict will influence how tech giants like Google handle such warrants.
This decision highlights the tension between digital privacy and law needs. While the Denver District Attorney’s office welcomed yesterday’s ruling, Google emphasized the importance of recognizing the privacy implications of keyword searches.
Moreover, a recent Bloomberg Businessweek study added another dimension. It showed that police are increasingly turning to Google data, even for non-violent crimes. This highlights the growing dependence on tech companies for investigative leads.