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What is a keyword warrant?

A variety of warrants exist to facilitate specific searches as part of overall investigations by law enforcement officials. However, the seemingly innocent act of entering a topic into a search bar could result in unwanted attention from those powerful authorities.

Keyword warrants provide access to particular terms used in online searches that may hint at criminal behavior. Law enforcement could move forward without notification to the targeted individual and notify a judge of the search terms to secure a keyword warrant.

Important information or an invasion of privacy?

These investigations have been around for a long time, without much fanfare that would notify consumers of the practice. With only a handful of cases being documented, they quietly lurk in the background. In some instances, keyword warrants have been used to identify searches of a crime victim and their relatives. Someone searching for “murder” and “arson” or “pipe bomb” and “explosives” could also get the attention of law enforcement.

Context is important. Nuances exist when entering a search term that could be used by someone looking to commit a crime. Words and synonyms can have vastly different meanings. Using the search bar at the top of a computer screen and typing in a supposed “wrong” word associated with violent acts could be the first step in a criminal investigation.

High-profile search engines are culpable in their own ways. Google, Bing, and Yahoo continually track the search history of users stored in their respective data centers. While that helps them comply with law enforcement, the invasion of privacy, not to mention the potential of misinterpretation of the most innocuous word, could have serious consequences.

While the practice of keyword warrants seems to be the exception and not the rule, their very existence should concern consumers who shouldn’t have to think twice about the search topics they select.

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