|News March 02, 2006
Until the four major US search engines were subpoenaed by the government, searcher anonymity and privacy
was a yawn of concern for most, even if there were a few Paul Reveres out there. After complying with the order, though MSN
and others promised no personally identifiable information was given, the slippery slope got a whole lot slicker.
Editor's Note:What do you think about a Search
Privacy Bill of Rights? Which is more important to you-anonymity or personalization? Is all of this just paranoia or is this a
real and present threat? Discuss at
Among the indignant protests that came noisily tumbling to the front of our minds was a recollection of the Fourth Amendment.
EPIC.org ‘s Sherwin
Siy, speaking to a surprisingly small group at SES NY, says the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unlawful search
and seizure, doesn't apply in civil matters.
The panel assembled for the Search and Privacy track at SES also included MSN's
Ramez Naam, SearchEngineWatch.com's Danny Sullivan, and Columbia Law School professor
Wu, who co-authored the
book "Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World," framed it as a civil liberties issue that went beyond
the US government.
"This just the beginning," said Wu, giving a harrowing prediction of abuse by governments around the world. "There are many
governments that are interested in this," he said.
Perhaps even more eye opening, the panel agreed that the better a company is at aggregating data, and not destroying it, the
more attractive that data will be to government entities.
The issue of privacy isn't so much about what the US Dept. of Justice received, which was a basic list of queries and time frames.
The issue surrounded what could be obtained in the future. Wu was quick to mention that European law was much stricter about user
privacy than US law.
WebProNews has covered in the past, the index kept by search engines like Google may have a tremendous amount of personally
identifiable information that at the very least has a registered IP address. But some query logs will also hold an email address
if a personalized service is used.
Siy pointed out that a subpoena to an Internet service provider would reveal to the government (or others) who was using a
specific IP address. But also at issue here is the impact the ease of information retrieval has on the culture.
Public records, for example, at one time were difficult to find. Siy said they "went from the basement to the Web and are easily
discovered. Until the information was available online, it wasn't worth it to anyone to find it."
But public records and publicly viewable information are a small hiccup compared the personal information Web users trade on a
daily basis to acquire the services they desire.
a value exchange," said Naam, referencing the benefits of personalization services offered by high-profile companies like
Google, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. Users agree to trade a little (or a lot) of privacy to make their online experience richer.
The key question, then, is whether the benefits of personalized service outweigh a certain level of privacy. The personal
information granted to Google is stored on Google's server. How long will the search engine be able to resist government
subpoenas at home and abroad?
If a Web user is willing to forgo personalized features, they can use
anonymizing software to help maintain their privacy.
Toward the end of the session, Sullivan expressed the need for some sort of Search Privacy Bill of Rights, and/or some kind of
privacy notification posted on websites if only to avoid subpoena.
About the Author:
Jason is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.
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