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January 21, 2006

Google Subpoena Reactions Coming In

Now that the government is pursuing search engine data for litigation purposes, commentary is starting to filter through the mainstream news.  MarketWatch, for example, has one article that speculates on the broader meaning of the government probe.  If the government can look to searches on porn, can they also look for searches on tax shelters?  If there's evidence of a crime, government investigators can demand specific information that connects individuals to searches.

That information is likely there in one form or another.  Leslie Walker writes in the Washington Post about Google's personal search service which not only tracks what was searched by an individual on a daily basis, but additionally what search results were viewed.  The service has to be turned on by a user, but there are plenty of ways for Google and other search engines to track user searches and correlate them to identity via cookies.  All of these tech giants offer web mail and other services which require logins, and many of those login id's were acquired by parting with personal information.  Much of this information and how it's collected and used has never penetrated the collective consciousness until, perhaps, now.  It's one thing for corporations to enhance our user experience (read better marketing).  It's still another for the government to troll through that mountain of ready-made data.  While it's true that the major search engines turned in some form of aggregate data (most claim no personally identifiable information was provided, although Microsoft still refuses to comment), there are still questions as to whether the government can ask for personally identifiable information and whether it is entitled to that information.

Some people think librarians and others are overreacting when the government wants an individual's circulation records.  Is it overreacting to object to giving the government personal search records as stored on a central server?  The obvious complication for the search engine business is that some may be less likely to take advantage of search tools knowing the government is lurking in the background.  Less searching means less ad revenue, which means lower stock valuation targets.  Investors take note.

Forbes chimes in by quoting privacy advocates asking questions about what's next?  Perhaps the content of email?  Some comment that when privacy is compared with terror concerns, that terror comes on top.  Where this ultimately leads is anyone's guess.  But as we are electronically being sliced and diced and compared and tracked, some version of our true character is out there.  Do we really want the government to know?

January 21, 2006 | Permalink


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Send-out date : March 1, 2006
Recipients :
John Ashcroft, Attorney General
Jay B. Stephens, Associate Attorney General
Larry D. Thompson, Deputy Attorney General

The Bush administration has asked a federal judge in San Jose, California, to force Google to comply with a subpoena for information which would reveal the search terms of a broad swath of the search engine's visitors.

We the undersigned believe this is a violation of privacy, oversteps the boundarys of the US Goverment's constitutional authority, and applaud Google's resistance to this further erosion of liberty in America.

Posted by: Michael | Jan 23, 2006 3:31:19 PM

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