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Police Get Search Warrant for Everyone Who Googled a Fraud Victim's Name

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Do not Google these words: "Douglas" and "passport photo."

If you do, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a search warrant. The Edina Police Department has obtained a search warrant for anyone who Googled that name in connection with a theft of $28,500 from a Minnesota bank earlier this year.

"Douglas" is not the suspect; he is the victim. Police have concluded that the suspect Googled the victim's full name to search for a passport photo. The suspect then used a downloaded photo to create a fake passport, which was presented to the Spire Credit Union to complete a fraudulent wire transfer.

"Dragnet Searches"

To be clear, the warrant identifies the victim's full name but it has been blacked-out to protect his identity. It seems like the cat is out of the bag, however, and the bigger problem now is the privacy rights of others online.

"This kind of warrant is cause for concern because it's closer to those dragnet searches that the Fourth Amendment is designed to prevent," William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune.

Other legal experts agree. Teresa Nelson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the warrant is "breathtakingly broad."

"We could have people who are not searching for this individual who are going to be swept up in this," she said.

World Wide Search Warrant

The crime took place in a town of 50,000, but the search warrant literally reaches out to the ends of the earth online. The warrant seeks from Google "any/all user or subscriber information," including email addresses, payment information, social security numbers, dates of birth and IP addresses, of anyone who searched for the victim's name.

One limiting criteria of the search is the time frame: December 1, 2016 to January 7, 2017. So if you search for "Douglas" and "passport photo" right now, you will probably escape detection by the Edina police.

Google says it is objecting to the warrant, but the company provides information requested by the government and courts about 80 percent of the time. In the first half of 2016, the company reported that it received more than 14,000 requests from the U.S.

Ars Technica, a tech site and watchdog, called the Edina warrant "perhaps the most expansive one we've seen unconnected to the US national security apparatus." If carried out, the publication said, it could "set an Orwellian precedent."

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