No results found: Google couldn't locate records in murder case

Search giant blames, get this, faulty search tool

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Really?  Search giant Google couldn’t locate records subpoenaed by law enforcement – partly because of a defective search tool?

A recently unsealed case from the Northern District of California shows Google dragged its feet on subpoena and search warrants for a Gmail and Google Voice account associated with a 2013 robbery and murder in a small town two hours north of San Francisco.

Google employees, according to court records, repeatedly blew deadlines and told investigators they couldn’t locate the requested records, even as an enterprising federal agent working the case found ample proof the information existed.

Authorities became interested in a Google Voice account after learning the murder suspect had exchanged a dozen calls and texts with a number immediately before and after the murder, according to court records filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Not surprisingly, this led a federal prosecutor to say in court records that the number was of “extreme significance” to the investigation.

Court records show a four-month back and forth between Google and investigators, who wanted Google Voice and additional Gmail data related to their investigation that they thought should have been available within days.

At the time, Google said in court records, the company was facing an unprecedented volume of requests from law enforcement – the company received 21,492 “legal process” requests seeking information on 39,937 accounts in 2013 alone -- and had recently lost several employees from its law enforcement compliance unit, court records show.

Investigators worry about slow or incomplete searches because Google generally keeps account information for only 30 days after an account is deleted, according to court filings. That means if Google is slow to respond to law enforcement requests, those records could already be permanently destroyed by the time anyone tries to look for them.

Google acknowledged in court filings that it “may have” held records in this case that were ultimately destroyed, and the company blamed an overworked compliance department and – get this -- a defective search tool. Google explained in court records that it “uses export tools to extract data” for law enforcement requests, but that the tool failed. When company employees of “increasing seniority” tried to query the search software, the system incorrectly responded that it did not exist.

Google declined an interview request for this story, and the U.S. attorney’s office said it “has no comments.”

The company and the Justice Department resolved the matter in June. Google said it had beefed up its law enforcement compliance team, created an address for urgent law enforcement requests and worked out the kinks that resulted in mistakes in this case. That sounds like Google engineers took a look under the hood of the search engine used for requests from law enforcement.

As for the murder case, suspect Jonathan Mota was indicted last year and his trial is scheduled for October, court filings show.

Print this article Back to Top

DecodeDC's Mission

DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.