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 20, 2006
Columbia University Studies Student Email Patterns
eWeek is reporting a study at Columbia University that analyzed all email sent by Columbia University students for 1 year. Researchers looked at when email was sent, the conversation trail for that email, and what classes in which the correspondents were enrolled. According to the article, no content and personal details were seen by researchers. Names were converted to consistent but otherwise meaningless text, and the subjects and content of the messages were removed. Because of these measures Columbia takes the position that the ultimate data is designated as secondary data. Thus, the University felt it did not have to inform any students of how their email was being handled.
Read more here about how Columbia conducted the study, and the privacy implications beyond the University for this type of practice.
More On the Google Subpoena
In light of revelations about the government seeking wholesale search records, Wired News is offering a short guide to covering one's tracks on the Internet. It's not comprehensive, but it does have some good insights and suggestions. Find it here.
Declan McCullagh followed up his article in CNET News with a FAQ on the significance of the Google subpoena. Find it here.
Infoworld surveys users and comes up with a mixed bag of outrage and indifference. Find it here.
January 19, 2006
Governtment Subpoenas Search Data to Support Anti-Porn Law
In an unprecedented move to gather evidence supporting the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the Bush administration has issued subpoenas to all the major search engines. So far, MSN, AOL, and Yahoo have complied. Google also has received a subpoena and they have stated they would vigorously resist.
The AP account is on most of the mainstream press news sites, and it has all the basic information of the story. According to the AP, the DOJ is asking for 1 million random web addresses and records of Google searches for any one-week period. The government claims that it needs the information to show how often pornography is searched online.
There is another dimension to this story, and this is reported by Declan McCullagh at CNET. He notes that Yahoo has complied but did not provide any personally identifiable information. Privacy experts have noted that depending on what records these search engines keep, and for how long, that it would be easy to tie cookie information from email records to searches made on that service (Gmail accounts to Google searches, for example).
An AOL spokesman disagreed that the search engine "complied" as is understood in the AP article. Andrew Weinstein said the company gave a generic list of aggregate and anonymous search terms from a roughly one day period. He emphasized that privacy for individuals was not breached in these results.
Microsoft issued the following statement "MSN works closely with law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested....It is our policy to respond to legal requests in a very responsive and timely manner, in full compliance with applicable law." Microsoft issued a similar statement when it turned information over to the Chinese government that resulted in a dissident being jailed.
McCullagh links to a subpoena issued to Google in August, 2005, that requests all Internet addresses that can be located through Google and all queries that have been entered over a 2 month period starting June 1st. The government wants Google's information as it is clearly the largest player in the online search market. The DOJ has hired an expert who would analyze the data to estimate the harm for minors and the effectiveness of content filters to block harmful content. The rest of the article discusses comments from various individuals and organizations concerned about privacy. McCullagh also links to the legal documents filed in the case.
Some questions that are hidden in all of this is the justification for this information compared to the evidentiary value, whether the government intends to keep this information past the COPA litigation, and has this request for such a comprehensive and voluminous data set a precedent for such information in, say, terrorism cases later on? Could online personal behavior be the subject of criminal investigation or litigation. As Bob Dylan once said, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
January 17, 2006
Are Virtual Goods Taxable?
That's the question in an analytical piece by Daniel Terdiman on CNET. Game players collect virtual assets which they apparently sell to each other in the real world using real money. While taxing real world transactions sounds pretty straightforward, there is more to it.
Terdiman focuses on an article by Julian Dibbell in Legal Affairs Magazine. Dibbell is a writer, a game player, and a virtual asset seller. His article describes his encounters withe the IRS on this topic. While the IRS didn't seem to have its act together in Dibble's story, the CNET article notes that current transactions in virtual goods is around $880 million (and growing) That's some chunk of change.
The problem is the accounting for all of this. The game companies aren't set up for it, nor are the players. But they could be if government gets involved. Where there's significant money, you can bet congress and the tax man won't be far behind. At the right rate, the government may just be able to fund that bridge to nowhere in Alaska that Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) whined about in the last round of Senate budget negotiations.
January 16, 2006
Guess Who's Working Up the Sounds for Vista?
It happens to be none other than Robert Fripp, founder of King Crimson, collaborator with Brian Eno on three ambient albums, and all around guitar hero to the progressive set. There is a 25 minute behind the scenes video of the recording session held recently at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond. Fans can download the 90+ megabyte file or stream it. Get details here.