People expect a certain degree of privacy online, but records of your movement across the internet are stored in various repositories. Police from the Minnesota city of Edina have obtained a wide-ranging court order that grants them access to a lot of it. The warrant — amazingly, approved by a judge in Hennepin county — instructs Google to make data belonging to anyone in the well-to-do suburb available to police.
Police in Edina, a city of 50,000 on the outskirts of Minneapolis, have been looking into a wire fraud case. The suspect was attempting to swipe $28,500 from a branch of Spire Credit Union using a fake passport, and investigators think they know how to narrow their list of suspects. They need to know who in Edina might have searched Google for “Douglas.” There are four names (first and last) included in the order, but the last names are redacted.
According to the warrant granted on February 1st, a Google search for “Douglas [last name]” surfaces a photo that was used on the fraudulent passport. The police reason that the suspect conducted this search in order to find the photo (they didn’t find the photo on Yahoo or Bing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there). Investigators want to know who in Edina performed that Google search between December 2016 and January 7th of this year. A small group that may contain the suspect.
The warrant requests the exact time and date of searches, but the police are after any and all data Google might have on anyone who completed this search. This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, social security numbers, email addresses, payment information, account details, IP addresses, and MAC addresses.
It’s unknown if Google will comply with the warrant. It has regularly protested orders it feels are burdensome, and indeed it rejected a previous administrative subpoena on this case. Maybe it won’t have to go that route. It’s possible Google will be unable to provide the requested data. The police want data from all searches within Edina, but the search records aren’t necessarily that precise. Someone could have an address in Edina attached to their account, but not have been anywhere near the city when doing this search. Likewise, someone could have performed the search while passing through Edina and have no further association with the city. Are both those people fair game? And what if the suspect wasn’t anywhere near Edina when putting the scheme together?
This seems like a rather brute force attempt to unmask the perpetrator that ignores the reality of the internet. There’s no guarantee this person used Google. Even if they did, the search term used to find the photo could have been very different than the ones in the warrant. If law enforcement is going to continue casting increasingly wide nets like this, you might want to get a good VPN.