Finally, some black-robed backbone is being displayed by judges in the never ending battle between law enforcement and tech companies over warrants. And the move is going a step further in prodding the companies, specifically Google, to be less compliant with government requests for information that seems specious. In a six-page decision the judge, U.S. Magistrate Paul Grenwal of California refused to compel Google to hand over the email account of a government employee suspected of corruption. This decision comes on the heels of one by a Washington, D.C. judge blocking a similar request for a customer’s Apple account. Curiously, Grenwal, the California judge, alluded to the similarity in the DC request. He accused the government of ’judge shopping’.
’The Technorati are … everywhere, and yet too few understand, or even suspect, the essential role played by many of these workers and their employers in facilitating most government access to private citizen’s data,” wrote Magistrate Grenwal. Not only did he chastise the government in seeking the warrants, but he suggested that Google take steps to stop routinely submitting the client’s cloud-based computer accounts. He said, ’While Google has publicly declared that it challenges overbroad warrants, in three-plus years on the bench in the federal courthouse serving its headquarters, the undersigned has yet to see any motion (to decline response).” Google apparently did not respond to this subtle swipe.
The Washington Post referred to it as a ’Magistrates’ Revolt’, since judges in many states have pushed back on overly broad government search warrants. This problem is not likely to be solved easily as law enforcement has had its way for too long. Grenwal alluded to the government’s ’seize first, search second” history with regard to computer related investigations. Regrettably, the practice seems to have now carried over to cloud- computing.
It should be noted for the record that Google has been a leader in publishing so-called Transparency Reports. These reports purportedly reveal the extent of government requests for user information. Nonetheless, when it comes to search warrants, neither Google or the rest of the tech industry appear to have an appetite to fight them.
The danger in just ’rolling over’ for law enforcement has grave implications beyond the scope of the specific search warrant request. Often much more data is gleaned by the government as the accounts contain an enormous amount of data- more than is requested in the warrant. This makes the recent actions by Judge Grenwal and others like him so important. One can only hope that more judges are similarly vigilant.