Privacy Law

Teen charged in deadly fire challenges police use of Google searches to find suspects

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Lawyers for a Denver teenager charged in an arson fire that killed five people contend that police unconstitutionally used Google’s database of keyword searches to find suspects.

Lawyers for the 17-year-old youth claim that his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches was violated when police conducted what is known as a reverse keyword search, NBC News reports. A judge had ordered Google to conduct the search at the request of police.

The lawyers say the teen may be the first defendant to challenge police use of search histories to find suspects.

In the teen’s case, the search looked for Google users who typed in the address of the home that was set on fire in August 2020. The search led to the arrests of the teen and two of his friends.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil rights group, filed an amicus brief June 30 in the case arguing that keyword warrants are overbroad and violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, according to a June 30 press release. The brief also argues that the warrants violate the Colorado Constitution.

The warrants “target protected speech and the corollary right to receive information,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues.

Google doesn’t publish data on the number of requests that it receives for keyword searches. But those types of searches are increasingly used by police seeking information that could lead to a suspect, according to NBC News. Some think that the searches could also be used to find women who have had abortions, according to a tweet by the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of the lawyers representing the 17-year-old defendant is Michael Price, the lead litigator for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Fourth Amendment Center.

“People have a privacy interest in their internet search history, which is really an archive of your personal expression,” Price told NBC News.

One of the charged youths allegedly told police that he had been robbed while buying a gun and wrongly thought that the perpetrators lived at the house set on fire, according to previous coverage by CBS News Colorado.

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