The use of Google search in the case of the deadly Denver fire raises broader questions of privacy.

Think about all the things you’ve Googled in the past, oh, let’s say six months.

Anything you don’t want to make public? Something you don’t want the police to know? Probably at least somewhat embarrassing, right?

Most of you are scoffing at this thinking, “Who would be interested in the things I’ve found on the internet?” or “We all know nothing is private on the Internet.” We say we know it, and we acknowledge that we know it every time we check out that we’ve read the Privacy Policy (even though we probably haven’t) or accept the “Terms and Conditions.” do which we have not even read.

We are bombarded with ads that prove our search data is not private and depending on our apps and settings we can be bombarded with daily suggestions about how to live our lives.

It’s all just a tease.

While the arson and murder case between us depends on how a judge rules on a motion to exclude evidence obtained through what defense lawyers call a “digital dragnet.” If granted, the motion would break ground in the Aug. 5, 2020, case against teenagers Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour in the arson deaths of five members of a Senegalese family in northeast Denver.

A few months after the fatal fire, police investigators obtained a so-called keyword search warrant that asked Google for the names of people who had searched for the crime scene’s address in the two weeks before the fire. Google, which admits it complies with the criminal warrant, gave five names to police, including Gavin Seymour, who was 16 at the time of the fire.

Three months later, Seymour, Bowie and a third youth, who was 15 at the time of the fire and was being tried as a juvenile, were arrested.

Defense attorneys argued in their motion that the first warrant, which led to several specific warrants, was unconstitutional. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 19 in Denver District Court.

First reaction: The Internet is a public forum, Google (and others) comply with the warrant, and the warrant was narrowed down to be specific to this crime scene. Although I still wonder about the other four internet searchers who may have been temporarily under suspicion for this heinous crime.

Follow-up response: How often do law enforcement agencies use these types of keyword warrants? Not clear, although the numbers are growing. And what kind of digital warrants are being sought? A geofence warrant is a big deal. They look for location data about a person who has been in a particular area at a particular time. reports that Google More than 11,000 geofence warrants were received in 2020, a huge increase over previous years. Google also released its supplementary report. Questions abound on geofence warrants.

And then there are warrantless searches. Plenty of data is for sale (remember those terms and conditions and privacy policies?) and government agencies are a big consumer.

The obvious response: We need laws, especially at the federal level because the Internet knows no borders or state lines. Are these new digital warrants compatible with the Fourth Amendment, which prevents the use of warrants?

Many people, businesses and organizations are calling for digital privacy protections, but it’s difficult to reach consensus on where to draw the lines. In the workplace, schools and institutions, data is king. While most data isn’t specific to individuals, it’s not too much of a leap for technology to connect it.

Many states, including Colorado, have consumer protections such as preventing individuals from having their data sold. In 2021, amid the pandemic, Colorado became the third state to pass a sweeping privacy law that regulates how companies can use consumers’ private data.

But only the savviest digital consumers are adept at leaving no trace.

Medical and financial data are highly secure, but what about these breaches? And, in this post- Roe world, how do we define medical privacy? Is it safe to search the Internet for abortion providers?

As is often the case, we have let problems overtake policies.

The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act was adopted in 1986 and while it has been updated, it has not been maintained.

Vox reported last year that law enforcement agencies Uses the space to purchase data, including location information and commercial facial recognition data (collected by businesses from online images). This week only, Politico reported on the release of the records. The American Civil Liberties Union was told by the Department of Homeland Security that it had tracked thousands of movements from cell phone app location data provided without a warrant.

The more you watch (on the internet, of course), the more you want to unplug from your digital life. Still, you can’t look away – nor should you.

The amount of data that is collected, stored, sold and shared is staggering and its use will affect us all.

It’s long past time to rally around those trying to curb some of the excesses, and fortunately there are plenty of people tackling the issues, including a coalition of tech companies, the ACLU and numerous think tanks and academics. And of course politicians.

The Reform Government Surveillance Coalition of the biggest digital companies, including Amazon, Meta, Twitter and Google, will keep you up-to-date on the issue and Instead it provides short news on a hard site.

ACLU Privacy and Technology Website It is the best place to immerse yourself in issues including pending and resolved court cases.

“Americans should not have to choose between using new technology and protecting their civil liberties,” the ACLU says on its website. “We work to ensure a future in which the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches extends to digital property and your data is your own.”

We can – and should – debate what constitutes an unreasonable search in the digital world. We need limitations to ensure that if we use such things as keyword warrants, they are clearly defined, concisely focused and accurate. are used properly.

I’d like to believe that we can do that, but we have a law enforcement history that shows that warrants are sometimes too easy to obtain, too crudely used, too routinely. happens. Just the thought of a potentially unbridled digital dragnet makes me skeptical.

Protecting our constitutional rights and privacy is always a difficult task, but especially so in a digital age that is moving faster than our policies. We must press to catch up.

Sue McMillan is a longtime Colorado reporter and editor who has worked for The Gazette and Durango Herald. Now a regular columnist for the Denver Post and a freelance writer, she lives in Canon City. Email him at

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