If You Search Google For Tips on Killing Someone, Could Cops Show Up at Your Door?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 6 2012 1:06 PM

Could Cops Use Google To Prevent Murder?

Murderers often turn to the Web for tips on killing. Could search data help the police stop those crimes before they happen?

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But if the idea of Internet companies sharing users’ seemingly private information with law enforcement sounds far-fetched, consider that the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to explicitly legalize and promote just that behavior. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, would encourage the free flow of information on “cyber threats” between the government and major Web firms. Under the law, those firms would be immune from lawsuits arising from the sharing of such information. Several major tech companies, including Facebook and Microsoft, endorsed the bill. After an outcry from privacy groups, though, the Obama administration threatened a veto, and the bill has not been introduced in the Senate.

There are, though, other types of search data that companies already share with federal officials in real time. For instance, Google uses its analytics to report flu trends to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It anonymizes the data to make sure it can’t be traced to individual users, but the precedent is still one of instantaneous sharing with the government. In the U.K., meanwhile, legislation is afoot that would require Web companies to monitor users’ searches for terms indicating that they might commit suicide. Such searches would presumably produce an alert to law enforcement, who could then try to intervene to save the user’s life.

Even if Google—or Ask.com or Microsoft’s Bing—did come to an understanding with American law enforcement, there would still be the practical problem of sifting the useful data from the noise. As Casey Anthony’s mother would tell you, there are plenty of reasons to search for chloroform (or chlorophyll) other than to plan a murder. Likewise, any police department that tried to track down all the searches for “how to dispose of a body without getting caught” would quickly find itself overwhelmed. And in Okrzesik’s case, the poor grammar in “chemicals to passout a person” might have kept it off the radar of even the most sophisticated monitoring algorithm.

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Yet the next three Google searches on Okrzesik’s phone—“ways to kill people in their sleep,” “how to suffocate someone,” and “how to poison someone”—seem to clearly indicate that someone has a strong curiosity about how to kill someone. One can also imagine other searches—say, a series of queries about the ingredients used to make anthrax—that law enforcement agents might like to know about.

Unlike in Minority Report, such search data probably wouldn’t be enough to justify a search warrant on its own, let alone an arrest and conviction. But David Sklansky, a criminal law professor at UC-Berkeley, says it could constitute the reasonable suspicion needed to pull someone over or stop him on the street. And police don’t need any reasonable suspicion at all to knock on someone’s door and ask what she’s up to, provided the person agrees to talk.

Most of the time, even these seemingly incriminating searches would probably amount to nothing, like a burglar alarm going off in a house (a false alarm more than 95 percent of the time). It’s also possible that if it becomes public knowledge that cops and search engines are collaborating, an Internet mob could start mass-searching “ways to kill people in their sleep,” overwhelming law enforcement with phony queries. But in rare cases, it’s conceivable that search sleuthing could lead to saved lives—perhaps a great number of saved lives, in the case of a terrorist attack. That prospect, however slim, may be enough to convince search engines to at least explore the potential for increased collaboration with authorities. Murderers and the morbidly curious, be warned.

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