Following Thursday’s revelation that the Bush Administration has ordered search-engine providers to turn over usage records, citizen rights advocates and attorneys have voiced alarm over what many say is an unprecedented invasion of privacy. The administration has said it needs to survey this data in order to build a case against exposing children to pornography on the Web.
“That information — what a person searches for on the Internet — is not like knowing what brand of toothpaste he uses,” said Thomas R. Burke, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine’s Privacy and Security Group in San Francisco. “It is far, far more intimate,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The nature of the information the government is seeking is not entirely clear. It appears at face value that the requested records would not reveal, for example, that Jane Doe searched for information on local dog groomers.
Still, privacy advocates fear the worst — especially as consumers become more and more dependent on search engines for information — and some are questioning the Justice Department’s ultimate motives. While its present intent is to use the data to revive the twice-overturned Online Child Protection Act, critics charge the government is interested in mining Google’s rich search engines for other purposes.
Privacy, Trade Secrets
The Justice Department is demanding Google’s records for a two-month period to build its case to reinstate the child-protection law, which has been deemed overly broad by the courts, according to a filing in the Northern District Court in San Francisco.
The administration wants to review the records to see what results are returned for a typical query, thus showing what a child might be exposed to during the course of normal search activities.
Google tried to work with the government, according to press accounts, but ultimately refused to hand over the data, citing privacy and protection of trade secrets as its reasons.
Now, the government has requested similar data from other search engines, and at least one — Yahoo — reportedly has complied.
Outrageous and Wasteful
The government’s approach is likely to be inefficient, if not invalid, according to one private attorney who was formerly a prosecutor.
“My own view on this case is that it is outrage, an unnecessary move from the government and a waste of their resources,” Stephen M. Ryan, a partner in Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, told TechNewsWorld. Ryan, a former prosecutor, recently helped to break an online child pornography ring.
Even if the government were able to link individual users to search terms, which the Justice Department has implied it does not intend to do, searching for child porn online is not necessarily illegal, noted Ryan. Paying for it — and, of course, producing it — is.
Going after the large end of the funnel — that is, people browsing or curious or even doing legitimate image research, “is not good policy at all for the government.”
Nonetheless, the administration likely will get what it wants, assuming it doesn’t back down. The government has very broad law-enforcement authority to argue that a subpoena should be enforced, Ryan said.
The Bigger Picture
It is inevitable that the government will start to seek out data for other purposes if it succeeds with Google, Burke warned. “The implications of [Google’s subpoena] are profound. People have got to come to realize that, eventually, everything they search for is information that may be shared with government,” he said.
In the future, a database of search terms could be combined with other databases the government maintains, Burke conjectured. “A person may find himself having to explain why he wanted to find such and such on the Web without the benefit of any context.”
Another serious potential problem could arise due to misfiling or mishandling data through error. Burke noted that he has represented children and other people who have erroneously wound up on the No-Fly list in a number of lawsuits against the government. Burke’s own name appeared on it, he said.
“This is not a new phenomenon. It happens repeatedly in the private sector too,” he remarked.
How the courts will decide the issue remains to be seen. Meanwhile, privacy advocates have wasted little time advising people on safe-search practices. The World Privacy Forum has posted tips for people who worry that their personal information may wind up linked to their search requests in either a government or private company’s database.
It makes the following recommendations:
- Avoid using terms that include your full legal name attached to any information that you don’t want associated with it, such as your social security number. “If you have conducted this search, then your name and your SSN will appear together in the search string, and may be stored for a long time by the search engine.”
- Use an anonymizing tool. There are services available that allow people to use the Web without revealing a computer address, such as Anonymizer.com.
- Do not sign up for related services, such as e-mail, offered by the search engine you most often use.
- Do not accept search-engine cookies.
- Be aware that online purchases can be correlated to search activity at some search engines.