How Can The Police See Your Internet History?

October 05, 2023 by Anastasiia Ponomarova in Rights  Special Report  
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How Private is Your Internet Usage?

It is a common misconception among users that their browser history remains private, particularly if they utilize incognito mode or regularly clear their browsing history. However, it is essential to note that internet service providers (ISPs) retain records of users’ online activities, encompassing search queries and visited websites. Generally, this information is kept confidential, but in cases where law enforcement suspects an individual of criminal activity, it can be utilized as evidence. This is particularly prevalent in instances involving internet-related offenses.

For police officers to access a suspect’s browser history, search warrants are typically required. While state and local law enforcement may require a warrant to gain access to electronic devices such as computers or cell phones, federal agencies are not bound by this requirement when accessing browser data. According to the provisions of the Patriot Act, the FBI has the authority to access an individual’s search history without obtaining a warrant initially. Additionally, prosecutors can subpoena ISP records to obtain further evidence if an individual has been charged with a crime. Despite efforts by privacy advocates to mandate search warrants, the current language of the Patriot Act permits federal agents to gather browser history as evidence without such warrants.

Methods By Which Law Enforcement Can Obtain Access To Your Data

Device Access

One of the most apparent ways law enforcement can obtain your data is by accessing your physical device. Police can get a search warrant or subpoena your device to examine your phone. If your phone is locked or you use encrypted messaging apps, law enforcement can use mobile device forensic tools to bypass your lock screens or break the encryption if they have a warrant.

Law Enforcement Requests

While examining the privacy policies of commonly used applications, one may encounter a provision stipulating, “We refrain from sharing your user data unless it is in compliance with a law enforcement request.” This implies that law enforcement agencies, like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, and the police, can directly access your user data from technology companies through various legal channels without needing to search your device. In certain instances, they can acquire this data simply by making a request.

In numerous cases, these requests are accompanied by non-disclosure orders, preventing the company from informing users that their information has been requested for six months or longer. It may take years before a user becomes aware that their information has been relinquished to law enforcement authorities.

Various law enforcement requests exist, each with varying legal weight and scope. Recently, three legal requests have raised concerns amongst activists and experts. These are:

  • Geofence warrants,
  • Keyword search warrants,
  • Administrative subpoenas.

A keyword search warrant permits law enforcement to access the information of individuals who searched for specific terms or keywords within a designated time frame. A geofence warrant enables law enforcement agencies to obtain device information of all users present at a particular location during a specific time. Privacy experts argue that both types of warrants are overly broad and violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. Administrative subpoenas carry less legal weight and require court intervention to enforce compliance.

Can Law Enforcement Access Deleted Search History?

The answer is affirmative, as they possess the capability to do so. However, it is crucial to comprehend that the process is not as straightforward as a mere perusal of your internet browser.

Methods Employed by Law Enforcement to Access Deleted History

Law enforcement agencies can gain access to deleted history through the utilization of specialized tools known as forensic software. These tools enable them to scan your computer or device, searching for deleted files that have not yet been overwritten. Subsequently, they can recover and employ this data as evidence in legal proceedings.

It is important to note that law enforcement can only access your deleted history if they possess a valid warrant or if you permit them to do so. They are not authorized to inspect your computer without a legitimate cause.

Preserving the Privacy of Your Search History

While law enforcement can access your deleted history, there are measures you can take to safeguard your data. One such method is the utilization of encryption techniques. This entails encoding your data, rendering it accessible solely to individuals possessing the decryption key.

Another means of maintaining your search history’s privacy is through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a secure web proxy. These tools encrypt your internet connection, making it considerably more challenging for anyone to track your browsing activities.

External Resources: Google Is Giving Data to Police

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How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

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