What just happened? The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a search warrant that involved the examination of Google users' keyword history to identify suspects in a fatal 2020 arson fire. The decision has drawn criticism from privacy advocates, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which wants a full ban on keyword warrants.
In the case of Seymour v. Colorado, Denver police executed a search warrant that required Google to provide the IP addresses of anyone who had searched for the address of a home within the previous 15 days of it being set on fire. The attack killed five Senegalese immigrants, including an infant and a toddler.
Police say that one of the boys, Gavin Seymour, had used Google to search for the property's address multiple times before the fire. His lawyer asked for the evidence to be thrown out as it violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures by not targeting a specific person suspected of a crime. It's noted that the police investigation had gone cold, leading them to seek the reverse keyword warrant to identify possible suspects.
While the court said Seymour had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his Google search history and assumed the warrant was "constitutionally defective" for not specifying an "individualized probable cause," the justices decided in a split decision that the police acted in good faith, meaning the evidence will be allowed in court despite the warrant being legally flawed.
Monica Márquez, one of the dissenting judges, wrote, "Today, the court blesses law enforcement's use of a powerful new tool of the digital age: the reverse-keyword warrant."
"The warrant here was invalid […] and the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule cannot salvage its unconstitutionality."
The EFF and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed amicus briefs highlighting the privacy implications of reverse keyword warrants. The EFF states that these warrants have the potential to implicate innocent people or target those who search for information about abortion in states where it is criminalized.
Google said in a statement that it was important the court's ruling recognized the privacy and First Amendment interests involved in keyword searches.
"With all law enforcement demands, including reverse warrants, we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement," the tech giant said.