The U.S. government is covertly recruiting Google, which maintains access to swaths of Americans’ personal data and information, to surveil their web searches, a new report from Forbes suggests.
For years, the federal government has quietly demanded that the Big Tech search engine company hand over user data on anyone who conducts online searches using key terms. In 2017, a Minnesota judge OKed a warrant directing Google to expose user data for anyone in Edina who searched a certain fraud victim’s name. In a similar request in 2020, investigators demanded the Silicon Valley giant reveal information about “anyone who had searched for the address of an arson victim who was a witness in the government’s racketeering case against singer R Kelly.”
In the most recently publicized warrant, which was accidentally unsealed by the U.S. Department of Justice last month and then quickly resealed, the government reportedly demanded to see the personal account information and IP addresses of anyone who searched for a possible kidnapping and sexual assault victim’s name, “two spellings of her mother’s name and her address over 16 days across the year.” It is unclear just how many users, including innocent Americans, were included in the data Google unveiled to federal investigators.
Google defended its compliance in a statement but simply claimed that users’ private data is protected by the company only if law enforcement doesn’t request it.
“As with all law enforcement requests, we have a rigorous process that is designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” a Google representative told Forbes.
Google has also been a key player in the government’s plot to track down people present on Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. According to Wired, the federal government has sustained 45 criminal cases that use Google geolocation data “to place suspects inside the US Capitol on January 6.” Wired not only notes that Google’s participation in the FBI’s reliance on geolocation is “at a scale not publicly seen before,” but that there were “at least six [warrants] where the identity of the suspect appears to have been unknown to the FBI prior to the geofence warrant.”
“They also reveal that within days or weeks, the FBI had access to personal information about many of their owners, including at least the account name, email, and phone number. None of the legal experts WIRED spoke with had heard of another case where the personal data for devices in a geofence warrant had been unmasked at this scale,” Wired reported.
Google also complied when the FBI wanted other data related to Jan. 6, “including recovery numbers and emails, and dates on which the [Google] accounts were created and last accessed.”