Should reverse keyword searches be legal?

Should reverse keyword searches be legal?
(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

In 2020, someone set fire to a home in Green Valley Ranch, Colorado. The ensuing blaze destroyed the house, leaving five Senegalese family members dead. A police investigation led to the arrest of three teenagers, Gavin Seymour and Kevin Bui, both of whom were sixteen at the time, along with an unnamed 15-year-old. Seymour and Bui are both being tried as adults while the younger teen is being prosecuted as a juvenile. But now the Colorado State Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the method the police used to track down the teenage arsonists. Investigators obtained a warrant to force Google to review all web searches seeking the address of the home that was torched and the identity of the people conducting the search. That led them to Seymour and Bui. But the boys’ attorneys are claiming that the warrant was invalid because it violated their privacy. A lower court rejected that claim, so now the question has landed in the lap of the state’s highest court. But is such a search truly out of bounds for law enforcement? (Denver Post)

The Colorado Supreme Court will review the Denver Police Department’s controversial use of a Google search warrant that led officers to identify and arrest three teenagers in connection with the 2020 arson of a Green Valley Ranch home that killed five family members.

A Denver District Court judge upheld the legality of the reverse-keyword search warrant late last year, but an attorney for Gavin Seymour, one of the teenagers charged in the case, said during a hearing Friday that oral arguments before the state’s highest court are scheduled for May.

The state Supreme Court decided earlier this month to review the ruling on Google search warrant, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization focused on digital privacy and rights, which filed an amicus brief in support of Seymour’s petition.

Making this story all the more tragic is the fact that the boys didn’t even know who they were attacking. One of the boys had previously had his phone stolen and he (wrongly) believed it was a member of the family they attacked. He was reportedly seeking revenge, but he was going after the wrong family.

This is being described as a “keyword warrant” because the search keywords gave a clue as to who was interested in the address of the home in the two weeks prior to the arson attack. The defense attorneys argued that the digital search was a “massive fishing expedition” and the boys’ digital privacy rights were violated. A district judge disagreed, calling the warrants “specific, narrow, and supported by probable cause.”

The fact that the boys were using Google to check out the specific address of the family was an obvious red flag. How many people would have been searching for information related to that address shortly before the fire? I find myself tending to side with the prosecution on this one.

This is part of an expanding field of law that’s only growing more complicated in the digital era. And a number of suspects are getting caught up in this sort of trap. In addition to these boys, a Massachusetts man who was recently charged with murdering and dismembering his wife was found to have Googled “ten ways to dispose of a body.” And to be honest, if you leave something like that in your search history, you’re sort of begging to be arrested.

Sometimes you don’t even need to do any web searches to tip off law enforcement to your activities. As we recently discussed, two men in Washington state who shot up an electrical substation last year were identified by having telecom providers search the location data of all the phones that had been in the vicinity at the time of the attack. The courts didn’t seem to have a problem with that sort of warrant either. Anyone who has any sort of online presence leaves all manner of digital signatures of their location and identity all the time, with many probably unaware that they are doing it.

That just seems to be the reality that we’re living in now and both law enforcement and the courts are scrambling to keep up with all of these advances. The best advice we can offer is to not commit crimes in the first place. But unless you plan on taking yourself off of the grid entirely, it’s hard not to leave digital fingerprints potentially exposing what you’ve been up to.

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