The US Government has asked several of the major search engines to turn over search data for one million random web addresses and records of all searches, from any source, for a one week period. The expressed purpose was to estimate how much pornography shows up in the searches that children might do. How they could determine which searches were done by children and which searches were done by adults is a mystery.
Yahoo, MSM, and AOL have supplied the requested information. Google has refused, and was issued a subpoena. Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineWatch has covered this issue extensively and uncovered the real facts. Definitely worth a read. John Battelle's Searchblog also has a story "What's the big deal". The New York Times chimes in with a story on web privacy.
UPDATE: Om Malik of Business 2.0 has published a story on his blog "Living a cached life" which expands on the issues presented here in Living the "Observed Life". An excellent read from a truly outstanding writer. Dan Farber at ZDnet adds his view in "Data trolling and the cached life". Jack Schofield of The Guardian in the UK also picks up the story "Living the observed life".
The supreme court nomination hearings for judge Alito have focused in part of the boundaries of presidential power and the government's right to wiretapping and other surveillance methods in the name of national security. The supreme court ultimately decides the constitutionality and legality of such issues. Serious stuff.
Technology, politics, and the law are a very dangerous mix. I was at Napster back in 2000 when these three forces converged. It was not a pretty sight. The search engine request is a much larger, far reaching, issue. It effects every one of us, at least in principle. After stripping away all the hype the reality is that the government has not requested any personally identifiable information associated with the search data. At least not yet. It could become a slippery slope. What if they ask for all searches for "Osama Bin Laden" and associated IP addresses?
We should again consider what rights and privacy we have in the new digital world. You will probably be surprised to learn you have very little privacy and very few rights. Over the years we have rationalized this away, traded privacy for convenience, accepted targeted ads for free content, and assumed our email, even at work, was private. It isn't.
Most of the time this is OK. Getting sued by the government, a competitor, or a litigious action group, will change your perception of privacy in a hurry. At Napster every email we ever wrote or received was subpoenaed and read by teams of lawyers. Sorry Mom...that email you sent me complaining about Dad...is now public information under the Freedom Of Information Act.
Bill Gates and other executives at Microsoft have had all of their email captured by legal teams for various law suits at one time or another. Bill Gates once said "We live the observed life". Translation...assume that everything you say, write, or do will be reviewed by a team of lawyers...with the worst of intentions.
Working on personal computers does not mean everything we do is personal and private. Email is an impersonal and informal type of communication. We sometimes write things in email that we wouldn't say face to face, or even on the telephone. Instant Messaging is even more informal. Some think that when the session ends the message vanishes. Not always. Some services log and archive IMs.
Living the "observed life" can actually be a good thing, once you get used to it. But it should be your choice, not a requirement. Here are a few suggestions for living the observed life in the digital world.
- Write each email as if it is CC'd to your boss, your competitors, or your spouse. If you are ever sued or investigated...it will be.
- Use a separate, non-work, email for any personal communication. Still not private, but at least a little safer from work and competitors...but not your spouse. :-)
- Use the old fashioned telephone for sensitive conversations, and don't take notes. Email is the ultimate written record that could come back to haunt you.
- Don't use search engines or email at work for any personal issues.
- Limit cookies on your browser to only those you explicitly accept. Understand the bargain you are making when you accept a cookie.
- Understand that anything you download to your computer can be tracked, and probably is.
- Assume that any data you enter on web forms or e-commerce pages can be intercepted, hacked, misused, or subpoenaed. The creidt card companies take most of the risk here. Your nmaximum exposure is around $50.
There are probably more, and better, rules to live by, these are just random rules off the top of my head. Ask a lawyer and they can give you a nice long list.
However, life is good. Everything works out just fine 99.9% of the time. We live in a great society of honest and decent people who want to do the right thing. Even in government...most of the time. Principles are important. We do have a right to privacy, but we have been lulled to sleep about where the boundaries of our privacy begin and end, and what compromises we have made along the way. Something to think about over the weekend.