Search warrant on Edina Google searches could have big implications

Yolanda Curtis
March 18, 2017

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the warrant, which was granted in February, aims to find anyone who searched for the name (or variations thereof) of an Edina, MN, resident who may have been the victim of identity theft.

The criminal pulled off the scheme by posing as the victim and faxing over a forged US passport to the bank. His first name is "Douglas"- his last name was redacted in documents made public by reporter Tony Webster in order to protect him. The warrant commands Google to divulge "any/all user or subscriber information"-including e-mail addresses, payment information, MAC addresses, social security numbers, dates of birth, and IP addresses-of anybody who conducted a search for the victim's name".

In an unprecedented request, local police in Minnesota have acquired a warrant that compels Google to surrender information on every person who used its service to search for a particular name.

This has led the Edina Police to draft the warrant which the judge has signed and approved.

"This kind of warrant is cause for concern because it's closer to these dragnet searches that the Fourth Amendment is created to prevent", said William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

The case centers on a local man whose photo, which is obtainable through a Google search, was used on a fake passport to fraudulently transfer $28,500 out of his bank account. Searches on Bing and Yahoo didn't return the same photo. The image used on the passport is unfortunately publicly available through a Google search, but does not seem to appear in other search engines.

Others are more anxious about the larger implications of the police action.

In a statement on Friday, Google said it would continue to object to the police's request, potentially igniting another showdown reminiscent of Apple's fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Amazon's objection to a similar warrant in an Arkansas murder case. "Case name should be In re Minnesota Unconstitutional General Warrant". Google has said they plan to challenge the warrant. Rob Kahn, a privacy law professor at the University of St. Thomas, remarked, "I'm concerned both about ensnaring innocent people but also ... that this become a pattern".

"Though Google's rejection of the administrative subpoena is arguable, your affiant is applying for this warrant so that the investigation of this case does not stall", officer David Lindman wrote the judge in the warrant application. In fact, Google has been known to make efforts against such things in the past. "We could have people who are not searching for this individual who are going to be swept up in this".

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