A recent ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court allows the police to utilize Google Search histories in criminal cases. Civil rights advocates have cautioned about the potential privacy concerns this precedent could cause for internet users.
A Landmark Arson Case
The controversial verdict came about from the case of People v. Seymour, arising from a 2020 arson incident that tragically claimed five lives in Denver. According to the court documents, the Denver Police Department issued a search warrant to Google, requesting data on all users who had searched nine variations of the address of the torched home within a fortnight leading up to the blaze.
The Court's Ruling and its Implications
On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement acted within legal parameters and upheld the use of the warrant. The court also acknowledged the reasonable expectation of privacy users have vis-a-vis their search results, even those without any identifiable user data.
This ruling, while narrow in interpretation, opens the door for a broader use of reverse-keyword warrants by law enforcement agencies. The court stated, “Our finding of good faith today neither condones nor condemns all such warrants in the future. 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.”
Civil Rights Advocates Express Concern
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) supported Seymour's appeal and expressed apprehension about the ruling. The EFF has long contended that keyword warrants are unconstitutional, as they allow law enforcement to collect large amounts of data without substantial evidence of criminal activity.
Jennifer Lynch, EFF General Counsel, noted that the verdict provided no guidance for lower courts handling similar cases in the future and this may result in an inconsistent approach to keyword warrants. Lynch also voiced concerns over innocent individuals being ensnared in these digital dragnets due to vast amounts of searches performed daily by users.
Google, however, has stated that it is committed to denying overly broad or unlawful demands for data. A spokesperson for Google was recorded saying, “It's important that the Colorado Supreme Court recognized the significant privacy and First Amendment interests implicated by keyword searches.” The tech giant maintains a rigorous process to protect user privacy while cooperating with law enforcement.