Riddle Me this Batman: Doing Google Search Warrants

One of the unique aspects of my “job” is I get to see investigative reports on various cases and how they develop. Recently, I was looking at the investigative efforts of an agency on a child porn case. It was a simple case really. The suspect used a gmail account to send illegal images to a covert account, which also happened to be a gmail account. But I have my questions.

The investigative agency got a search warrant and served it on Google. However, for some reason the matter was not sealed. If one searches the gmail account name you can actually still find the case which references the search warrant, i.e., USA v. actual name of the gmail account.

Yeah, big problem Batman. And guess what? The suspect went missing for a year. First question, why was the search application not sealed in this day in age, particularly on a case seeking a search warrant an email account? I am just guessing but maybe this suspect did a Google search on his email or even had an alert set up to notify him when his email showed up on the web. Hence, the reason he was missing for a year.

Next few questions in this case revolve around the search warrant affidavit and what they were seeking. In this case they only asked for “the email account”, which apparently is all they got. They got email to and from the suspect and their attachments. This was the meat of the issue and showed he sent and received illegal images. However, why didn’t they seek and obtain other aspects of the Google account in their application?

Specifically, they interacted with this suspect via email from another gmail account. Why not have also interacted with him using Google chat function too? It is after all highly likely that this suspect also used Google’s chat service to trade child porn, if not worse. Additionally, what about asking for everything on the Google drive too? I mean, individuals don’t just store data on hard drives now. Why not also explain that law enforcement also needed data from this subject’s Google drive in the search application?

Additionally, individuals often times will search via Google while they are signed into their account. Guess what? Google will frequently have that history saved. Won’t it be good to also have that evidence that subject was searching for these images too?
These last two questions, concerning the Google drive and the search history, become particularly important when we consider that when they found this suspect his computer was long gone. Sure they have the emails messages and attachments sent back and forth. But is it possible that he still has images saved in his Google drive?

Additionally, this suspect initially claimed his account was “hacked.” One way to overcome the “hacked” defense is the person was doing other activity at the time they were looking for porn. For instance, one minute he is looking for an address for a job and the next he is surfing for porn followed by searching for a car part etc. Also, having the IP address from where the account was accessed during the email and browsing sessions would also have been helpful to defeat the hacker defense, particular as they didn’t have the suspect’s computer. Thankfully, he later admitted he was using the account to trade child porn and dropped the hacker defense.

Final question is they apparently never went back and got search warrants for the original Google account and additional email accounts after his admission over a year later. Do we really believe that he only traded child porn for a two month period? With his admission and the evidence already gathered it appears that there would be plenty of probable cause, which wasn’t stale, to get additional search warrants for these accounts. I get that they had plenty of evidence but shouldn’t they make sure they checked these accounts again. We don’t stop searching a building because we found drugs in one room. What if there were more than just additional images in those accounts, such as evidence that he was involved in molesting a child?

Granted I am playing arm chair detective here and they have the guy. My point to all this is we need to start looking at Google as more than just an email service. It is cloud storage provider and in many ways contains as much and maybe more pieces of electronic evidence than a traditional computer. So Batman, what you think? On that note, I left a cigar lit somewhere.

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