August 3, 2020

How your search history can send you to jail.

There is a long list of notorious court cases in which people’s personal search history was used as evidence to support their imprisonment.

The fact that police can obtain a search warrant for your browsing history should alarm you. Most people wouldn’t want their online activity public, let alone on criminal trial. 

Yet today, “Computer forensics” has become routine, and search and browsing histories have begun to appear in more criminal prosecutions. According to Stephanie Lacambra, a criminal defense staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “In any instance where the police affiant can convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe that the suspect’s browsing history contains evidence of a crime.”

In order to access this information via Google, Google requires either a request from a verified law agency be submitted to their online Law Enforcement Request System (LERS). At a high level, this what occurs when law enforcement requests your search and browsing history as evidence in criminal cases:

  • Law enforcement issues a subpoena to Google requesting specific search terms to be run against their collected web search data. This can include unique search strings, names, dates/times and addresses related to a crime or potential crime.
  • Google returns search results to law enforcement that includes IP address(es) that were recorded as the requesting device conducting the search using the above search terms.
  • Law enforcement identifies the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that owns the IP address(es) and issues a subpoena to the ISP(s) to identify the subscriber that was issued the IP address during the relevant time-frame.
  • Subscriber information is then provided to law enforcement from the ISP thus identifying the physical location of where the search was performed.
  • Law enforcement then seizes the computing devices for analysis.

Interestingly, Google’s Transparency Report (https://transparencyreport.google.com/user-data/overview?user_requests_report_period=authority:US), declares that between 80 and 90 percent of LERS requests get accepted and receive some kind of data from the requested users account.

Furthermore, Google is under no legal obligation to inform you when they disclose your account information. Their policy states that an email will be sent to the user in question so long as it is not prohibited by the specific request, in which case the email will be delayed until the gag order period has ended. Their policy also includes a clause that states that they can withhold notifying affected users at their own discretion, in cases when they believe a “notice would be counterproductive or exceptional circumstances exist involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”

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Now that you know how law enforcement or legal counsel can access your search history, let’s review some of the most notorious criminal cases when a person’s search history helped put them behind bars. We emphasize the word “helped” because it’s important to understand that there was other, more substantial physical evidence in each case that also directly led to the defendant’s guilty charge. 

  • Woman Arrested for Husband’s Murder Had Extremely Suspicious Browser History. “In addition to  investigators finding that the bullets used in the murder matched bullets in a .38-caliber gun that was “wrapped in a paper towel inside two plastic bags” in Sandra’s car. Also damning, the Waxahachie Daily Light reports, was the browser history found on one of Sandra’s seized electronic devices: Police say she searched ‘how to kill someone and not get caught.’” Full story by Gabriella Paiella for The CUT: https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/woman-arrested-for-murder-searched-how-to-commit-murder.html
  • Florida couple arrested for murder after their online searches revealed the evidence for what led to the death of their roommate. Ayers was arrested after he confessed a crime to a friend while his girlfriend Okrzesik, blamed the entire ordeal on Ayers. However, a police investigation on Okrzesik’s social media history showed disturbing evidence of the couple’s thought process before and after the crime. Full story by Nat Garum of Digital Trends: https://www.digitaltrends.com/home/googling-how-to-murder/
  • Man charged with murdering his son searched how to survive in prison. Before his son’s death, he had visited a Reddit page called “child-free” and read four articles. He also allegedly searched how to survive in prison. Full story by Eliott C. McLaughlin and Dana Ford of CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2014/07/03/justice/georgia-hot-car-toddler-death/

While these cases were fairly straight-forward and further supported by physical incriminating evidence outside of the defendant’s search history; other defendants’ stories are not as simple.

Case in point, the story of Gilberto Valle – dubbed the “Cannibal Cop,” by the media – who was found guilty for conspiracy to kidnap and of eating several women, as well as gaining unauthorized access to a government database. Valle was arrested after his wife discovered via his Internet search and browsing history that he was spending time in Internet chat rooms describing detailed plans for heinous crimes against women.

While Valle never assaulted anyone, he faced a maximum of life in prison (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_in_prison) for the conspiracy charge and a maximum of five years for accessing the federal National Crime Information Center database without authorization. Throughout his trial, Valle plead innocent, explaining that his online behavior and search/ browsing history were only thoughts of his “sick fantasy.” He maintains his innocence to this day.

The prosecution was able to nail him on a conspiracy charge, citing search history terms like “how to make your own chloroform” and other searches as chargeable evidence. 

His criminal case has been covered at large by the press and featured in the documentary “Thought Crimes,” by director Erin Lee Carr. The film “questions the line between fantasy and murder” and is a stark reminder of the fact that your online activity can be publicly used to charge you with crimes you have not committed.  

Parting thought

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to personal search and browsing history being used in court. Surveillance of people’s online activity may be useful to bring down criminals, however a person’s online activity can be subjectively used against them out of context. At Startpage, we feel that your online searches are personal and for only you to judge. What do you think?

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