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The Rise in Government Requests for Google User Data in Criminal Investigations

Anything You Say, Do – Or Search – May Be Used Against You in a Court of Law

In recent weeks, the issue of Google searches and the law has been in the news – most recently with the announcement that the Florida sheriff’s office that investigated the disappearance of Casey Anthony’s daughter “overlooked evidence that someone in their home did a Google search for ‘fool proof’ suffocation methods on the day the girl was last seen alive.”  It’s been reported that during their investigation, the sheriff’s investigators pulled entries only from the computer’s Internet Explorer browser and not the Firefox browser that was commonly used by Casey Anthony – overlooking more than 1,200 Firefox entries.

Would the knowledge of this Google search have led to a different outcome for this case and a conviction for Casey Anthony?  Prosecutor Jeff Ashton told Orlando television station WKMG that “It’s just a shame we didn’t have it.  This certainly would have put the accidental death claim in serious question.”

How the sheriff’s office could have overlooked this Google search – especially in a time where obtaining Google user data is becoming vital in criminal investigations – is puzzling, at best.  It’s been reported that the sherriff’s office didn’t consult the FBI or Florida Department of Law Enforcement for help searching the computer in the Anthony case– a mistake that they are now most certainly regretting.

The Anthony case is perhaps the most high profile recent case showing how Google searches, and what you search for, can end up as evidence in a criminal investigation.  However, it’s not just the cases making national headlines where the government can, and does, request Google user data – it’s thousands of cases around the world.  Every search you enter, every video you watch, every photo you share – is being tracked and can be reported to the government when and if requested.  And according to a recent report, the government is asking for this data more and more in criminal investigations.

A few weeks ago, Google released their latest Transparency Report – making it public knowledge how much information they have shared about governments’ requests for specific user data.  The numbers represent a huge increase in data requests – this most recent report (covering January – June of 2012) shows that US government agencies made almost eight thousand requests to see private data on over 16 thousand users and accounts – ­a 34% increase in data requests from the same time period the year before … and a 47 percent increase in the number of users and accounts being investigated.

It’s clear, then, that “electronic evidence” is not only going to continue to play a major role in our legal system in the years to come, but that government requests for specific user data in criminal investigations is going to continue to increase.  In fact, in the three years that Google has been publishing their Transparency Report, they have noted that requests have increased over 81 percent.  And with the recent issue brought to light by missing/overlooking crucial electronic evidence in the Casey Anthony trial, it’s likely that no other prosecutor will risk an incomplete Google search investigation ever again – and will make sure that all user data is properly gathered, compiled and analyzed to use as evidence.

So take the term “online privacy” with a grain of salt … and remember that these days, it’s not only what you say and do that may be used against you in a court of law – but what you search.  If you or someone you know is in need of any type of legal counsel and/or have any questions regarding electronic evidence and your rights, call us at 516-294-0300 or visit us at www.cmgesq.com.

For more information about the most recent Transparency Report from Google: www.examiner.com/article/is-your-online-privacy-a-mirage-government-requests-for-google-user-data-jumps

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