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Search Data and Browsing History Used As Evidence

Posted by Andrew at 12:13 AM on October 20, 2011

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The murder trial of Jo Yeates is front page news throughout the UK – a neighbour Vincent Tabak is accused of killing her. At the moment, the prosecution is presenting its case and a couple of interesting things have emerged as evidence.

In particular, the prosecution has alleged that the defendant:

  • looked at Wikipedia for the definitions of murder and manslaughter.
  • searched for the maximum penalty for manslaughter, i.e. how many years in jail.
  • looked up definitions for sexual assault and sexual conduct.
  • searched maps showing the area where the body was later found.
  • searched on CCTV cameras in street where both the defendent and victim lived.
  • use Google StreetView to view the same area.
  • researched criminal forensics, fingerprinting and DNA evidence.
  • read news stories on the investigation into the disappearance  of the victim.

Of course, it will be up to the jury to decide whether these are good indicators of guilt, but regardless it’s clear that if someone is accused of a crime then there’s a pretty thorough examination of one’s computers and on-line behaviour. Obviously this case is about a very serious crime but it’s almost a gift to the prosecution when put together like this: can you think of any good reason to access this material at the time of the disappearance? However, this is circumstantial evidence and needs to be weighed as such.

On a related note, Google has announced that if you are signed-in to Google when you search, you will automatically use https://www.google.com/, the secure version of Google Search. While this will prevent casual snooping on your search, Google will be keeping hold of your search information so that it can better serve you adverts. And how long does Google keep the search information? Indefinitely or until you remove it. So while on the face of it encrypted search is a good thing, it comes at the price of Google knowing yet more about you.

I suspect that in the current murder trial, all the computer forensics team had to do was look back through the defendant’s browser history. Easy if there’s only one computer, but more difficult if the person has a home computer, work laptop, smartphone and so on. If you’re tied into Google everywhere, all they’ll have to do is subpoena information from Google and get your search data in one tidy little bundle. Nice.

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