Court Releases Inconclusive Verdict on Reverse Keyword Searches

The debate over their legality is likely to continue

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Can law enforcement prosecute people based on a reverse keyword search?
Didem Mente/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In some high-profile legal cases, it’s increasingly likely to see a defendant’s web searches cited in an indictment — with the case of Senator Robert Menendez being one recent example. There’s another way that online searches are also factoring into the legal system, and it’s in a much more contentious way — a practice known as reverse keyword searches. Essentially, that involves law enforcement requesting data from a company like Google to see who might have searched for a specific phrase — including an address where a crime took place.

Not surprisingly, advocates for privacy and civil liberties are unsettled by this practice. Writing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation last year, senior policy analyst Matthew Guariglia observed that “anyone whose commute takes them goes by the scene of a crime might suddenly become vulnerable to suspicion, surveillance, and harassment by police.”

As Mack DeGeurin reported for Gizmodo, this month the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling that could have had wider implications on the legality (or lack thereof) of reverse keyword searches — but ultimately took a narrower view.

The case explored the legality of reverse keyword searches as they applied to an investigation of arson and murder in Denver. The judges’ opinion in the case notes that law enforcement had difficulty investigating the case until they submitted a warrant to Google, which led to them to the people eventually convicted for the crimes.

As the majority opinion pointed out, the case puts a few important principles into conflict with one another. The judges note the defendant’s right to privacy and expression — but also that “law enforcement obtained and executed the warrant in good faith.”

DeGeurin’s analysis of the case points out that the ruling stops short of being a definitive take on reverse keyword searches en masse. Instead, the ruling allows this exemption to stand — which led to some of the privacy advocates Gizmodo spoke with to express concern that this could lead to this technology being abused by law enforcement.

It’s worth mentioning that this kind of search could have other applications beyond finding someone who set a house on fire, killing several inhabitants. The example of states where abortion is now illegal requesting data from Google and similar companies to determine whether anyone is researching abortion pills online has been widely cited. Short of a Supreme Court verdict, the debate over reverse keyword searches is likely to continue.

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