The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday that evidence gleaned from a warrant for Google’s search data could be used in the prosecution of a teen who was charged with murder for a fire that killed five people in the Denver area.
(Bloomberg) — The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday that evidence gleaned from a warrant for Google’s search data could be used in the prosecution of a teen who was charged with murder for a fire that killed five people in the Denver area.
As police scrambled to solve the source of the 2020 blaze, they asked Alphabet Inc.’s Google to provide information about people who searched for the address of the house that went up in flames, using a controversial technique known as a keyword search warrant. After some initial objections, Google provided data that enabled detectives to zero in on five accounts, leading to the arrest of three suspects in the case.
Lawyers for one of the suspects, Gavin Seymour, who was found to have Googled the home’s address 14 times in the days before the fire, argued that the keyword warrant constituted an illegal search and that any evidence from it should be suppressed. His motion is the first known challenge to the constitutionality of keyword search warrants. The case is ongoing.
In its 74-page decision, the court found that law enforcement had acted in good faith when it obtained the warrant for the teen’s search history. Still, it stressed that the findings were specific to the facts of the case, and it refrained from weighing in about the use of Google’s search data more broadly.
“Our finding of good faith today neither condones nor condemns all such warrants in the future,” the court wrote. “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.”
Representatives for the Denver District Attorney’s office and Seymour didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Google also didn’t immediately respond.
The keyword search warrant “is profoundly different from traditional search warrants seeking data belonging to a suspect,” the defense argued in a court filing. “Instead, the process operates in reverse — search everyone first, and identify suspects later.”
There are few known examples of keyword search warrants, but the practice has come under scrutiny in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the right to abortion. Privacy advocates have warned that keyword search warrants and geofence warrants, in which police turn to tech companies for information about users who visited a particular location, could be used to prosecute women who obtain abortions in states where it’s illegal.
A Bloomberg Businessweek investigation found police across the US were submitting geofence warrants to Google to solve crimes large and small. The use of keyword search warrants is less common, but that technique, too, has made its way to police departments around the country.
–With assistance from Davey Alba.
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