The following text is copyright 2006 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.


King George the 1st on privacy


By Scott Bradner


At first the news of the US federal government asking Google for a week's worth of everyone's Internet searches was mostly astonishing in how unexpectedly expected it was.  Since the Internet has been made the boogyman for just about every ill that troubles mankind, why not get a head start by finding out in advance what everyone is looking for.  The details behind the headlines, when they came out, mostly added confusion.  This particular case may turn out to be far less than it first appeared but it could easily lead to an attempt at a fundamental realignment between the rights of the individual and the government.


In an attempt to rescue a net censorship law that the US Supreme Court tossed out the government asked, by means of a subpoena ( , Google and the other search engine companies for a whole pile of information about how people search the web and what they find.  The original request to Google was for "[a]ll URL's that are available to be located on your companys' search engine as of July 31, 2005" and for Google to "produce an electronic file containing [a]ll queries entered into the Google engine between July 1 and July 31 inclusive." All in all, a huge amount of information.  The subpoena said that the government just wanted the search strings "without any additional information that would identify the person who entered any individual search string."   Google said no, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL all said yes to similar requests. 


Since the government is specifically asking that identifying information be remove what is the problem with these requests?  Leaving aside the fact that many searches do reveal personal information about the searcher it's very hard to figure out just what the government is trying to prove with an analysis of this information.  The law that was overturned required that web sites with naughty material information on them use a form of positive identification to be sure that a child was not trying to access it.  The court said that local filters were a way to get to the same place while interfering less with the constitutionally protected rights of Internet users who were not children.  The analysis of the search terms could show that people search for naughty things using Google - would it be a shock to find that out?  Note that a local filter could block such searches.  An analysis of URLs might show that some of them contain naughty words - hardly a shock - also something that a local filter can block.


I'm left with the nagging feeling that the case is just an excuse to find out if there are characteristics of search strings that can be used to ferret out bad guys of one sort or another.  If the government thinks that turns out to be the case how long will it be before they "ask" the search companies to become government agents and turn over the "additional information that would identify the person who entered" specific search strings in the future?  In fact, if the analysis of this set of data finds suspicious searches do you really expect the government to not demand to know who did the search?


It is a natural thing for governments to think that the privacy of the individual is an impediment to security - they thought that in King George the 1st's time - little has changed.


disclaimer:  Harvard has been a witness to this tendency since long before the first King George but the above is my own nagging feeling.