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Police sweep Google searches to find suspects. The tactic is facing its first legal challenge.

Privacy advocates are watching the case closely, concerned that police could use reverse keyword searches to investigate people who seek information about abortions.
Personal perspective of a person working on a laptop.
Google searches are now being used by police for leads in crimes.NBC News / Malorny via Getty Images file

A teen charged with setting a fire that killed five members of a Senegalese immigrant family in Denver, Colorado, has become the first person to challenge police use of Google search histories to find someone who might have committed a crime, according to his lawyers.  

The pushback against this surveillance tool, known as a reverse keyword search, is being closely watched by privacy and abortion rights advocates, who are concerned that it could soon be used to investigate women who search for information about obtaining an abortion in states where the procedure is now illegal.

In documents filed Thursday in Denver District Court, lawyers for the 17-year-old argue that the police violated the Constitution when they got a judge to order Google to check its vast database of internet searches for users who typed in the address of a home before it was set ablaze on Aug. 5, 2020. Three adults and two children died in the fire.

That search of Google’s records helped point investigators to the teen and two friends, who were eventually charged in the deadly fire, according to police records. All were juveniles at the time of their arrests. Two of them, including the 17-year-old, are being tried as adults; they both pleaded not guilty. The defendant in juvenile court has not yet entered a plea.

The 17-year-old’s lawyers say the search, and all evidence that came from it, should be thrown out because it amounted to a blind expedition through billions of Google users’ queries based on a hunch that the killer typed the address into a search bar. That, the lawyers argued, violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.

“People have a privacy interest in their internet search history, which is really an archive of your personal expression,” said Michael Price, who is lead litigator of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Fourth Amendment Center and one of the 17-year-old’s attorneys. “Search engines like Google are a gateway to a vast trove of information online and the way most people find what they’re looking for. Every one of those queries reveals something deeply private about a person, things they might not share with friends, family or clergy.”

Keyword searches have grown increasingly common in recent years, as police have used them to search for suspects in a variety of crimes, including a string of Texas bombings, sexual abuse in Wisconsin and fraud in Minnesota. They differ from traditional search warrants in that police seek them without knowing the name of a suspect; instead, they are seeking information that might lead them to a suspect.

Google does not publish data on the number of keyword search requests it receives, and did not respond to a request to provide that information. Google also did not respond to requests for comment. 

Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, privacy advocates and women’s rights groups worry that keyword searches could expand into investigations of illegal abortions in states that have outlawed them.   

“Police officers are going to try to investigate people they think are violating those laws. One way of finding that is to ask Google to hand over information on everyone who has searched for a Planned Parenthood in a particular place,” said Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil rights group that plans to file a brief supporting the 17-year-old’s challenge to the keyword search warrant.

“If Google is allowed or required to turn over information in this Colorado case, there is nothing to stop a court in a state that has outlawed abortion to also require Google to turn over information on that kind of keyword search.”

Abortion rights advocates are also concerned about geofence warrants, in which police ask Google to provide information on devices that were near the scene of a crime in order to find a suspect. That tool was found unconstitutional by a judge in Virginia last year, but that ruling doesn’t restrain police in other parts of the country.

Denver police, with help from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, turned to the keyword search several weeks after the fire, when they had yet to identify the people caught on security video in masks just before the fire was set.

The keyword search warrant, issued in November 2020, led Google to search for anyone who queried the address of the home that burned in the 15 days before the fire. Google delivered information on 61 queries, according to court filings, along with the IP address — a unique number for each computer on the internet. Investigators focused on a handful of those queries, asking Google to provide detailed user information for them. One of them was linked to the 17-year-old. 

From there, investigators examined the teen’s other online activities, including Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and text messages.  

The investigation revealed that the fire was set in a mistaken attempt at revenge against someone who’d stolen one of the co-defendant’s phones, a Denver detective testified last year. After the fire, the co-defendant realized the people killed were not the people he thought stole the phone, the detective said.

If it wasn’t for the keyword search warrant, investigators would never have suspected the 17-year-old or his friends, his lawyers wrote in the motion filed Thursday. 

“The starting point was a search of billions of Google users, and all without a shred of evidence to search any one of them,” the lawyers wrote.

The lawyers called the search a privacy violation of not only the 17-year-old defendant but of all people who conducted a search on Google during the 15-day period.

The Denver Police Department declined to comment. So did the Denver district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the case.

Price said that allowing the government to sift through Google’s vast trove of searches is akin to allowing the government access to users’ “thoughts, concerns, questions, fears.”

“Every one of those queries reveals something deeply private about a person, things they might not share with friends, family or clergy,” Price said. “‘Psychiatrists in Denver.’ ‘Abortion providers near me.’ ‘Does God exist.’ Every day, people pose those questions to Google seeking information.”