Google And Privacy

Have you been following what’s been going on between our government and the search engines lately? Seems sometime over the summer the justice department subpoenaed each of the major search engines for them to hand over data about users search behavior. Only Google refused to comply, which has recently set off a debate about privacy online when searching.

The New York Times has run a few articles this week about Google’s decision and the upcoming trial to get them to release the information and while Google’s refusal to comply may have had just as much to do with public relations than trying to make a stand the issue has a lot of important implications.

I found an interesting post on the MSN Search blog stating their reason’s for complying with the subpoena. Many of those commenting raised valid points for both sides of the issue, though the comments seemed to weigh in more on the side of privacy.

None of the requested information could personally identify anyone, however it could lead to further subpoenas for information that would link individuals to their specific searches.

The justice department wants the search data to defend a challenge from the civil liberties inion to a 1998 law, the ‘Child Online Protection Act’ which makes it a crime to make ‘material that that is harmful to minors’ commercially available online.

Regardless of where you stand on that issue I think giving over the search data is a dangerous precedent. Admittedly anything we do online is essentially in public, but generally the information is never going to be tied specifically to any of us. Searches we’ve typed into a search engine are easily tied to us though, given that Google Yahoo, MSN, AOL, etc. collect more information about us than just our searches, such as the ip adress from which the search was made and even more personal information such as our names and email addresses if we’ve ever signed up for any services with them.

Who among us doesn’t have at least one email address with one of the search engines?

If Google is forced to hand over the information it’s easy to see how in the future they could be forced to hand over more personally identifiable information and searches. Beyond that given the current state of affairs it’s not too difficult to see where the government would be looking for search information to profile it’s citizens.

Do you really want someone to build a profile on you based on a subset of your search behavior?

I thought one of the comments on the MSN blog made a very valid point when it asked what happens when someone performs searches about the Israeli Palestinian conflict (I’ll add or any other newsworthy story involving the Middle East). This same person also enters searches looking for information and images about various armaments in order to better program a video game. Will this person be profiled as a terrorist? Will the FBI break down his door one night looking to arrest him?

It may be stretching things a bit, but it’s far from inconceivable given the current state of the world and the current administration’s commitment to wiping out terrorism at seemingly any cost.

The justice department is overreaching here and any data they collect is easily misinterpreted. Isn’t the right to privacy one of our most precious rights and one of the things we deem important enough to protect? Will we now all need to limit and watch what information we search for in fear of being accused for what we may or may not be thinking when we made out search?

I applaud Google for taking a stand regardless of their motivation and only wish the other search engines had been willing to protect our data and information.

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