The Colorado Supreme Court issued a 5-2 ruling that leaves an urgent privacy question wreathed in a cloud of ambiguity. As a result, Americans must worry that merely being in the same location as someone who might have done an internet search for suspicious material could end up with their own search data being examined by the police.
So-called “reverse warrants” are a powerful new type of search warrant enabled by the collection of Americans’ private data. Reverse warrants allow the police to sift through the search histories of thousands of people. They come in two types: geofence warrants, which allow police to identify people whose devices were in a certain area at a certain time, and reverse keyword warrants, which allow police to identify who searched certain keywords, phrases, or addresses online.
These warrants and their underlying technologies allow police to track any person and search through their data. Instead of developing suspicions about a person based on factual evidence and then applying for a warrant to search that specific person – as required by the Fourth Amendment – reverse warrants involve looking through the search history or location history of many innocent people in the hopes of finding a suspect.
Reverse warrants exist in legal limbo. There is little precedent or written law that govern this new form of data analysis. Accordingly, some courts have treated reverse warrants as they would any standard warrant.
Seymour v. Colorado is the first case to address the constitutionality of reverse warrants. This case springs from a particularly heinous crime – an arson that killed a family of five. Two months later, the Denver Police Department obtained a reverse keyword warrant. As a result of the warrant, Google was forced to hand over the data of eight people, five of whom had Colorado-based IP addresses that had searched for the location of the arson in a two-week period before the crime. Three suspects were eventually charged. One of them, Gavin Seymour, sued to suppress evidence obtained by the warrant on constitutional grounds.
The court held that “Seymour has a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his Google search history,” and that “Seymour’s Google search history implicates his right to freedom of expression.” The court also found that law enforcement obtained and executed the warrant in good faith, so the evidence shouldn’t be suppressed under the exclusionary rule.
Thus the court acknowledged the serious constitutional issues at play and still treated the reverse warrant as if it was just an ordinary search. The court stated that “the warrant required individualized probable cause and that its absence here rendered the warrant constitutionally defective.” Yet, somehow, it was still admissible evidence.
Five innocent people had their data searched. Another five innocent people were murdered in a fire. There is a lot at stake in this case, and a lot to unpack. Does a search of Google search histories by a given address satisfy the Constitution’s requirement for a particularized search? Can probable cause be asserted when the identity of the suspect is unknown? Could digital bystanders have evidence used against them from a search result unrelated to this particular crime?
Perhaps this case will advance to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could take this opportunity to articulate boundaries and rules for future searches. We’ve seen, however, a time lag in the Court’s addressing of new technologies. Congress should consider taking measures to protect privacy in reverse warrants before the Supreme Court is forced to weigh in.