US Judge asks reports of Google searches

US Judge asks reports of Google searchesOn February 2017, the judge of County of Hennepin, State of Minnesota, grants an application for a warrant to search filed by Detective Lindman of Edina Police Department. The warrant is directed to search for any or all user or subscriber information related to the Google searches of the victim’s name and last name, three variations included, for the timeframe of December 1st, 2016, through January 7th, 2017.

The information required include but are not limited to: name, address, telephone number, dates of birth, social security number, email address, payment information, account information, IP address and MAC address who completed the search.

A suspicious wire transfer

It is a cold 6th January morning in Edina, Minnesota. Snow all around, Christmas decorations still hang from iced lamplights waiting to be removed, holidays are soon to be over with the end of the day. The Spire Credit Union offices are open. The quite morning routine is broken by a phone call. The attendant answers the phone and finds on the receiver Douglas, a customer. He asks to wire transfer $ 28.500 from a line of credit to another account of another bank. To complete the transaction, the bank needs name, date of birth and social security number. Sure indeed, he answers. Minutes after, the Douglas’ passport copy has been faxed from his home telephone number to the bank number and the transaction is completed.

Almost $ 30.000 stolen from a bank account thanks to a fake passport

Next morning, it is as cold as the day before in Edina. But it is not for low degrees temperature that Mr Douglas is going frozen. He just discovered that someone stole $ 28.500 from a line of credit associated with his bank account. He immediately alerts the Edina Police Department reporting the theft.

Papers and documents are required to the Bank and examined by Police. What is suspicious is that the photo on the passport does not correspond to Douglas’ face. To be honest, it wasn’t Douglas on the phone, the passport wasn’t his one, the photo was of an unknown person and the request was fraudulent. The only true thing is the money transferred from the victim’s savings to the fraudster’s account.

The fact is clear. The fraudster made a mistake. He entered the customer’s name and last name to obtain his photo for the fake passport and chose a photo that was not referred to him but to someone else similar in age. Indeed, the fraudster believed the photo was that of the victim and printed it.

Detective David Lindman decides to use Google for searching the fraudster

Head of investigation is licensed peace officer David Lindman. He is 16 years experienced, and he served 5 years as a full-time detective on the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force. He is well trained in crimes related to check fraud, financial transaction card fraud, identity theft, theft by swindle.

A Detective has a brilliant idea. What if we go to look for the victim’s name by entering the fake passport’s photo on a search engine? And this is what it happens. The photo is entered on the photo PC and uploaded on the Yahoo Images’ search bar. Nothing. Uploaded on the Bing Images’ search bar. Nothing again. Third and last attempt, the photo is uploaded on the Google Images’ search bar. Bingo.

Then, they proceed in the reverse order and type victim’s name and last name on Google and it turns up photos that were used on the fake passport. The Detective realizes that, as they found poor victims’ name by googling his photo, so, at a prior stage, the suspect must have searched Douglas’ photo by googling his name. Not Yahoo, nor Bingo, but necessarily Google, since it was the only search engine that worked for this kind of search. The two other search engines displays as much results as Google, but among them there is not the single photo the fraudster used.

The Detective finds useful googling the name of the victim to obtain information

Apparently, there is only a solution to identify the fraudster. Look for everyone who searched on Google the victim’s name and last name weeks before the crime happened. Not only these two words, to be precise, since the unknown criminal could possibly have been mistaken while digiting the name too, not only while choosing the wrong photo associated to Douglas’ name. It means that they should search for an unknown person who digited a maybe wrong name to select a wrong photo. It could be risky and ridiculous but it is worth the chance.

The Detective manages to convince the Judge issuing a search warrant for names, email addresses, account information and IP addresses of any Google user who entered victim’s name over last five weeks from the theft. And the judge agrees.

How the Hennepin judge granted the application

In February 2017 Hennepin County Judge Gary Larson grants warrant filed for on 2 January 2017. Licensed peace officer David Lindman serves it to Google. The Edina Police Department will not disclose active case information or specific strategies used during the investigation.

Edina Police Department files application for a search warrant

Edina Police Detective David Lindman files an application for a search warrant asking the Court to authorize a search warrant for names, email addresses, account information, and IP addresses of anyone who searched variations of the victim’s name over a five-week period of time.

Before filing for application of the search warrant, Google was noticed with a Hennepin County Administrative Subpoena requesting subscriber information for anyone who performed such a search. Google rejected the administrative subpoena as the request is related to content, that is maintained secret for defence of privacy intent.

Search warrant is based on a probable cause for the Judge

The Hennepin County judge has granted the Edina Police Department application for a search warrant that looks into any/all user or subscriber information of anyone in Edina who searched Douglas name and variations between December 1, 2016, and January 7, 2017. The judge agreed with investigators that the fraudster spoofed the victim’s home telephone number. Presumably, he accessed the victim's phone line and impersonated the number by a malicious attack.

As to the photo, the investigators filing for request believe that the fraudster made a Google image search of Douglas and last name. the search displayed several images including the photo used on the fake passport. The only search engine displaying this photo is Google, while Yahoo and Bing display multiple image results but not the photograph they mean.

The information searched constitutes evidence which tends to show crime and criminal

The probable cause needed to issue a search warrant for property of things is found, by the Judge, into the fact that the information the Police is looking for, constitute evidence which tends to show the commitment of the above-described fraud and tends to show that a particular person, or the user who made the search, has committed the crime.

Therefore, the Police is commanded to enter and search for the information and to seize and keep said information in custody until dealt with according to law.

Eventually, Edina Police Department performed electronically a service of the search warrant via Google’s law enforcement portal but, Internet Service Providers are unable to provide the information requested immediately.

Should search engines be used as an investigation first stop?

Internet debate is whether this type of search warrant could be used to wrongly spy on innocent people, since Google is asked to provide personal information on anyone who Googled the victim’s name. From a law perspective, search warrants require supporting probable cause, and targeting “anyone” could be a too much wide net to operate, catching inside it routine and non-criminal searches made of the victim’s name by anyone who had curiosity about him.

The concern is whether Google, or another search engine, could at least be potentially used as a preliminary investigation auxiliary, should they be forced to disclose information on a vague basis of suspicion or thin evidence. Internet world is offering a mild solution. It is proposed to make an effort to narrow the scope of the warrant to a more selected range of user or subscriber, avoiding a large amount of protected information to be disclosed.

This is the first case of a search warrant directed to a search engine

Being far from traditional search warrant institute, this is a first case attaining Google or another search engine requested to compel a search warrant. It is not submitted an individual to the scope of the warrant, because the police did not identify a particular suspect as a starting point for their information to be searched for.

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