Search engine users concerned about the government’s new interest in search term data were relieved by a Federal judge’s ruling on Friday. Judge James Ware of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said Google must provide the government with 50,000 Web addresses in its search engine index — but it doesn’t have to provide a sample of search queries.
It was this particular request — made via subpoena — that had privacy advocates worried. Although the Justice Department denied that it would connect the data to individual queries, many viewed its action as the first step down that slope.
Open Season for Search Data
In fighting the subpoena, “Google did right by users that were highly skeptical about the government’s need for search term data,” Thomas Burke, a San Francisco-based attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine’s Privacy and Security Group, told TechNewsWorld.
In January, Google challenged a subpoena issued last summer by the Department of Justice not only to it but also to other search engines. The government wanted access to usage records for a survey it claimed was necessary to build a case for reinstatement of a law designed to shield children from Internet pornography. This ruling was the judge’s response to Google’s challenge.
It is possible, although unlikely, the government might continue to pursue this issue, Burke said. “They are building their case [to reinstate the Online Child Protection Act] in Pennsylvania. Conceivably, the government could ask the Pennsylvania court for help.”
Even if the government lets the matter drop, Burke said, it is clear that it is now open season for search term data during the discovery process.
“This case illustrates that search term data is vulnerable.”
Not all legal watchers believe Google got the better part of the decision.
The ruling is a “very mixed bag from a privacy perspective,” said Dallas patent and IP attorney Dan Venglarik of the IP boutique firm Davis Munck Butrus.
In fact, he told TechNewsWorld, the judge — not Google — raised the most important issue in the case: that search strings themselves may contain confidential user information, regardless of any redaction of “personal” information.
“Even if such strings do not occur in a statistically significant quantity, the government’s admitted plan for use of the information — having a human being use the search string and categorize results — would result in some potential of disclosure of such information to a government contractor,” Venglarik noted, since the Department of Justice is unlike to be doing this work itself.
Also, “the government would not state that they would limit their use of the information received from Google, but instead explicitly said that they might hand the information over to ‘the proper authorities’ if something came to their attention within the data received,” he said.
Furthermore, Venglarik continued, “the judge also warned that no inference should be drawn regarding the government’s power to use civil subpoenas to gather information about what people are searching for over the Internet.”