Google ‘keyword warrant’ in Minnesota now part of national privacy debate

Google ‘keyword warrant’ in Minnesota now part of national privacy debate

Google 'keyword warrant' in Minnesota now part of national privacy debate

A deadly hit-and-run driver, an arsonist who killed a family of five and a serial rapist.

Police in three states, including Minnesota, investigated those crimes using an increasingly controversial strategy, seeking to identify anyone who used Google to search specific keywords associated with those cases. 

Now, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is considering whether those so-called “reverse warrants” served on Google violate the Constitution.

A similar warrant filed in the still unsolved death of Dr. Cathy Donovan in Mille Lacs County, first uncovered by 5 INVESTIGATES, now has the attention of national digital privacy advocates.

“This particular case stands out to me as one where there’s going to be a lot of extraneous, unproductive information produced by Google,” said Andrew Crocker of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) got a warrant ordering Google to hand over the internet protocol (IP) addresses of anyone who searched the keywords “Mille Lacs hit and run” or “Highway 169 hit and run” over a four-day period.

“You can imagine lots and lots of people being curious about something that went on in their community, looking for that information and getting swept up in it,” Crocker said. 

Court challenges

Last month, a spokesperson for the BCA said such warrants can help them “identify witnesses” as well as “eliminate suspects,” but so far, authorities have not announced any suspects or arrests in the hit-and-run that killed Donovan. 

A similar reverse keyword search warrant helped investigators in Pennsylvania track down a suspect in the rape and kidnapping of several women between 2012 and 2017.  

Authorities identified John Kurtz after serving a warrant on Google demanding records of searches made for a victim’s name and home address. 

Kurtz later admitted to the crime and a jury convicted him, but now Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the reverse warrant used by police violated the part of the Constitution requiring probable cause. 

“I really understand in some ways and sympathize with what law enforcement is doing here. in that they’re investigating cases where they don’t have a lot of traditional leads,” Crocker said. “But they also have to respect the Constitution… If we allow these kinds of investigative techniques in really high profile, tragic cases, we’re really saying that they can be used in any way, in any case.”

Warning from a law enforcement expert

The use of reverse warrants on Google for cases in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and elsewhere also have the attention of J.P. Nixon, a former officer, prosecutor, and now a law enforcement consultant. 

“I think that they are an invaluable tool because they do provide us, in some cases, with information that otherwise we would simply not be able to access,” Nixon said. “Unfortunately, my concern is that the reason that they’re such a valuable tool to us is because they sidestep the particularity requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

Nixon and others say the hit-and-run investigation in Minnesota stands out because the terms of the reverse warrant are so broad. 

It is unclear how much personal information was collected from people who were among those searching for basic details of the case.

“The question becomes what happens if the government decides that they want to use them for other purposes?” Nixon said. “Clearly there is a broad scope of things that these can be used to do, to spy on anyone.”

The BCA says it uses reverse keyword search warrants “infrequently” to try to identify suspects in a crime.

Looking ahead

Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the use of a reverse keyword search warrant used to identify a suspect in an arson that killed a family of five, including two children. 

Denver Police got a warrant requiring Google to provide the IP addresses connected to any devices that were used to search the address of the family’s home for about two weeks before it burned. 

The decision to uphold the warrant is the first time any court has considered the constitutionality of reverse keyword searches, but the ruling only applies to such warrants in Colorado. 

Both law enforcement and digital privacy experts predict more challenges are coming and that another high-profile case in the future could end up in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.

“I want those people caught and as long as I think I can do it within the bounds of the law, I’m going to do that,” Nixon said. “What I’m telling you is I’m not necessarily convinced that courts are ultimately going to uphold these searches.”

Investigators are still seeking the public’s help in identifying the driver involved in the hit-and-run death of Dr. Cathy Donovan. The State Patrol is asking anyone with information to contact Sgt. Jason Brown at 218-316-3026 or at