MINNEAPOLIS – A search warrant issued to Edina police to collect information on people who used certain search terms on Google is raising concerns about constitutional violations.
Privacy law experts say that the warrant – issued to find a suspect in an attempted identity and credit theft of an Edina resident – is based on an unusually broad definition of probable cause that would be troubling if it became widespread.
“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 looks at 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 would have to provide Edina police with their Social Security numbers, account and payment information, and IP (internet protocol) and computer addresses.
Information on the warrant first emerged through a blog post by public records researcher Tony Webster. Edina police declined to comment Thursday on the warrant, saying it is part of an ongoing investigation.
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 such 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.”
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 internet users who searched the name for other reasons.
He added that he hoped police would find a way to guard or exclude data obtained through the warrant that was 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.”
Both professors, along with an attorney from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit based in San Francisco, questioned whether the evidence obtained by Edina police would hold up in court. They also said it was possible that Google will challenge the warrant.
Theresa 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.”
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