[3/17/17] Police in a small suburban town of 50,000 people just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, have won a court order requiring Google to determine who has used its search engine to look up the name of a local financial fraud victim.
The court order demanding such a massive search is perhaps the most expansive one we’ve seen unconnected to the US national security apparatus and, if carried out, could set an Orwellian precedent in a bid by the Edina Police Department to solve a wire-fraud crime worth less than $30,000.
Investigators are focusing their probe on an online photo of someone with the same name of a local financial fraud victim. The image turned up on a fake passport used to trick a credit union to fraudulently transfer $28,500 out of an Edina man’s account, police said. The bogus passport was faxed to the credit union using a spoofed phone number to mimic the victim’s phone, according to the warrant application. (To protect the victim’s privacy, Ars is not publishing his name that was listed throughout the warrant signed February 1 by Hennepin County Senior Judge Gary Larson.)
The warrant demands Google to help police determine who searched for variations of the victim’s name between December 1 of last year through January 7, 2017. A Google search, the warrant application says, reveals the photo used on the bogus passport. The image was not rendered on Yahoo or Bing, according to the documents. The warrant commands Google to divulge “any/all user or subscriber information”—including e-mail addresses, payment information, MAC addresses, social security numbers, dates of birth, and IP addresses—of anybody who conducted a search for the victim’s name.
The warrant was unearthed by Minneapolis journalist and public records activist Tony Webster. He took photographic images of the documents from a computer terminal at the county courthouse and converted them to the portable document format with the victim’s name redacted. (Webster said in a telephone interview that language in the warrant that says “located in city or township of Edina, County of Hennepin, State of Minnesota” is standard, pro forma language that is often contained in the county’s warrants. That language, he said, does not mean that the warrant is demanding that Google solely disclose who within the city’s 15 square miles searched for the victim’s name, as some have reported.)
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