The strange thing is, some of the people reading this sentence arrived at this story by searching for something on Google.
And to you, we say: Welcome. Are you sitting down? We have what looks like some bad news.
A couple months ago, we (by way of tech/data reporter Tony Webster) brought you the unnerving story of a search warrant issued by the Edina Police Department.
A quick recap: The suburban cops were trying to bust a local fraudster, who had allegedly scammed a man out of $28,500 by eliciting a wire transfer from his bank account.
Investigators had reason to think the criminal had looked up his victim online, found a photo of him, and used it to put together the fake passport he provided to the bank. If they could find out who had searched that victim's name prior to the bank request, they'd have some solid leads... and if only one person did it, well, they'd probably have found their man.
Of course, there was only one place to turn for this information: Bing. Nope, kidding. Google.
Police filed a warrant seeking a lot of information about anyone in Edina who'd googled "Douglas _______" (the victim) in the five weeks before the crime was commited.
In February, a Hennepin County judge agreed they should be able to get it. Some tech privacy experts did not agree, to put it mildly.
Is this for real?— Elizabeth Joh (@elizabeth_joh) March 17, 2017
Warrant for everyone in Edina, Minnesota who entered a particular Google search: https://t.co/wop8K6aK9V
Publicly, Google came out firing, telling the Star Tribune, "We will continue to object to this overreaching request for user data, and if needed, will fight it in court. We always push back when we receive excessively broad requests for data about our users."
That's right, Google! You tell those cake-eaters where they can stick their excessively broad search warrant! Keep kickin' ass and (please, please) not takin' names!
But in court documents, just how hard Google is fighting for your privacy is a little murky.
As the Edina investigator stated (a little awkwardly) in his warrant application, "Google Inc., has set up a law enforcement portal website so that legal process, to include search warrants, can be served on them electronically."
On May 3rd, detective David Lindmann filed an update with the court. It reads:
"On April 27, [Lindmann] was notified by Google Inc. that the results from this search warrant were available via their law enforcement portal. [Lindmann] accessed the records from the portal, and downloaded them. The downloaded digital files were placed onto a disc and secured into property/evidence at the Edina Police Department."
So what did Google just give Edina? We probably won't know until the case of the swindler of Edina gets resolved, or at least takes another step forward; the Edina Police Department has a standing "no comment on ongoing investigations" policy.
As for Google, it has a helpful, sunny-side-up FAQ explaining how it cooperates with cops. "Respect for the privacy and security of data you store with Google underpins our approach to producing data in response to legal requests," Google explains. If they think law enforcement is asking too much, they'll "seek to narrow" the information they have to provide.
"We often successfully narrow the scope of requests."
That's a relief. (Right? Is that a relief?)
On a related note, does anyone know how to get in touch with John Oliver? And does he take requests?
UPDATE: After this story published, Google issued the following statement to City Pages: "We objected to the warrant and significantly narrowed its scope to the point that only one record was produced. We were pleased to resolve this in a way that preserves our users' privacy."
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