After the colonists fought back and won the Revolutionary War, the framers made it a priority to establish future protections against unlawful searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution was written to protect privacy and property and prevent warrant-less searches and seizures. The Amendment also requires that search warrants describe the item being searched and the people or property that may be seized.
Today, Google Inc. is gathering volumes of personal information, location data, unique photo pixel “fingerprints” and other forms of intelligence on every person who uses their products. It’s deeply troubling that Google has become a data collection hub, but even more disturbing is that they are working with foreign governments and law enforcement agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is sounding the alarm that Google is helping U.S. intelligence agencies conduct warrant-less searches. If intelligence operatives want to investigate a person’s home, they must have probable cause and ask a judge to sign a warrant describing the objects they seek. When it comes to the digital world, police do not abide by the same rules of conduct. Because no face-to-face meeting is required to access digital files, police feel they are free to peruse through a person’s private information which has been conveniently collected by Google and stockpiled in one easy-to-access location. Police can easily conduct a warrant-less search of digital information because Google owns the information, not the private individual. This is how law enforcement can circumvent privacy laws and the fourth amendment.
Right now Google is working with law enforcement to track down missing children reported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In order to do this, Google scans billions of user images that are uploaded to the cloud. They then use facial recognition and algorithms to determine unique identifiable features to help match images and track people down. This sophisticated yet speedy system can help law enforcement find persons of interest by tracking their whereabouts on the web. A search warrant is not needed as the algorithms sort through personal pictures without the knowledge of the user.
When law enforcement has a person of interest, they can produce an image hash, which is a unique “fingerprint” of an image. Google algorithms analyze the image hashes and quickly hunt for identical hashes they have scanned across the web. The image hash is essentially a string of alphanumeric characters that describe the pixel content in the image. If Google locates a hash that matches the original hash of the person of interest, then law enforcement can work to track the person down following other location data clues.
Google’s latest proprietary algorithm doesn’t just match image hashes, but it goes a step further and scans a person's hard drive files to see if they can locate a precise image. In this way, Google is conducting massive warrant-less searches of people’s personal files to locate a “face in the crowd.” This technology can help law enforcement locate suspects, runaways, or kidnapped children, but the technology can also be abused or misused. Google’s algorithm may produce a “false positive” image – an image that resembles the target, but is not the right match. Law enforcement won’t care about any potential mistakes in the algorithm’s match. When they show up at a person’s door looking for a suspect, they may perpetuate the warrant-less search into the physical home, and even worse -- they may get the wrong person.
EPIC believes that the problems that will arise from this warrant-less procedure ultimately outweigh the advantages. If Google has the power to peek into every file on your hard drive to find specific photos, abuses will inevitably result. If Google can conceal this technology and keep it proprietary, then what’s stopping them from learning more about people’s private lives? Google is already working on a search engine project in China and helping the Chinese government censor out “sensitive” material they don’t want researched. In Project Dragonfly, Google is using algorithms to identify images, content, and language that is not welcome in the communist country.
EPIC believes strongly in “algorithmic transparency” for Big Tech companies such as Google, especially when they are working with foreign governments and law enforcement agencies.
For more on this issue, check out PrivacyWatch.News.