Internet giant Google is vowing to fight a search warrant demanding that Edina police be able to collect information on any resident who used certain search terms as authorities try to locate a thief who swindled a resident out of $28,500.
Privacy law experts say that the warrant is based on an unusually broad definition of probable cause that could set a troubling precedent.
“This kind of warrant is cause for concern because it’s closer to these dragnet searches that the Fourth Amendment is designed to prevent,” said William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.
Issued by Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson in early February, the warrant pertains to anyone who searched variations of the resident’s name on Google from Dec. 1 through Jan. 7.
In addition to basic contact information for people targeted by the warrant, Google is being asked to provide Edina police with their Social Security numbers, account and payment information, and IP (internet protocol) and MAC (media access control) addresses.
A spokesperson for Google, which received the warrant, said Friday: “We will continue to object to this overreaching request for user data, and if needed, will fight it in court. We always push back when we receive excessively broad requests for data about our users.”
Information on the warrant first emerged through a blog post by public records researcher Tony Webster. Technology website Ars Technica called the Edina warrant “perhaps the most expansive one we’ve seen unconnected to the U.S. national security apparatus.”
Google had initially declined to honor a subpoena to provide the same information to Edina. Police declined to comment Friday on the warrant, saying it is part of an ongoing investigation.
Credit union accounts
Detective David Lindman outlined the case in his application for the search warrant:
In early January, two account holders with SPIRE Credit Union reported to police that $28,500 had been stolen from a line of credit associated with one of their accounts, according to court documents.
Edina investigators learned that the suspect or suspects provided the credit union with the account holder’s name, date of birth and Social Security number. In addition, the suspect faxed a forged U.S. passport with a photo of someone who looked like the account holder but wasn’t.
Investigators ran an image search of the account holder’s name on Google and found the photo used on the forged passport. Other search engines did not turn up the photo.
According to the warrant application, Lindman said he had reason to believe the suspect used Google to find a picture of the person they believed to be the account holder.
Larson signed off on the search warrant Feb. 1. According to court documents, Lindman served it about 20 minutes later.
McGeveran said it’s unusual for a judge to sign off on a warrant that bases probable cause on so few facts.
“It’s much more usual for a search warrant to be used to gather evidence for a suspect that’s already identified, instead of using evidence to find a suspect,” he said. “If the standards for getting a broad warrant like this are not strong, you can have a lot of police fishing expeditions.”
‘A scary slippery slope’
Rob Kahn, a privacy law professor at the University of St. Thomas, was even more critical, saying the warrant could be used to collect information on people who searched the name for other reasons.
He added that he hoped police would guard or exclude data obtained through the warrant that’s unrelated to the investigation.
“I’m concerned both about ensnaring innocent people but also … that this become a pattern,” Kahn said. “It’s certainly a scary slippery slope that they’re setting up here.”
The privacy law experts all questioned whether the evidence obtained by Edina police would hold up in court.
“I’m rather skeptical of this warrant’s ability to survive constitutional scrutiny,” said Stephanie Lacambra, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit based in San Francisco.
Teresa Nelson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the warrant is “breathtakingly broad” and could have implications for people’s rights to search online.
“There’s really very little to connect the fact that there’s a photo attainable on Google with the identity theft,” she said. “We could have people who are not searching for this individual who are going to be swept up in this.”
Google says it receives an increasing number of data requests from governments and courts every year. In the first half of 2016, Google received more than 14,000 requests from the U.S. alone and provided information for 79 percent of them.