You Could Go To Jail For Googling Certain Keywords. It Almost Happened Before
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Elinor Mills Of News.Com did extensive investigation into search engines. What you are about to find out will most certainly shock you. If you want to read some truly weird and bizarre stories about how some people make money, go to our sister site UncommonBusiness
Now, buckle up and find out about big search engine conspiracy no one is talking about.
Q: Does Google collect and record people's search terms whether they're logged in or not?
Yes. Google confirmed this week that it keeps and collates these results, which means the company can be forced to divulge them under court order. Whether Google does anything else with them is another issue.
Given the Department of Justice's recent subpoena to Google, it's likely the police or even lawyers in civil cases--divorce attorneys, employers in severance disputes--eventually will demand that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and other search engines cough up users' search histories.
Q: Has this happened before?
Almost. A North Carolina man was found guilty of murder in November in part because he Googled the words "neck," "snap," "break" and "hold" before his wife was killed. But those search terms were found on Robert Petrick's computer, not obtained from Google directly.
Also, attorneys have already begun introducing searches conducted on Google, Yahoo and AltaVista as evidence.
Q: When I use search engines, I type in a lot of search terms I consider private. What does this mean?
We go into all the details below. But the short answer is that when private companies collect reams of data all the time on nearly every American, and the government and curious attorneys can get to that with few obstacles, this becomes a problem. Search engines provide a look into people's personal lives, and privacy awareness has not kept pace.
Q: Aren't there any privacy laws that protect us?
Not really. There is a federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But it was enacted in 1986, long before politicians knew about the Internet, and the wording doesn't prevent police and attorneys from targeting search engines.
Politicians wrote that law in a way that is technology-specific--one key part revolves around the meaning of the pre-Internet term "processing services"--instead of adopting a more flexible approach that would grow with technology. Some states may have laws that are more applicable.
Q: Does that mean Google has the technical ability to link a person's searches together and divulge them when legally required?
Yes. Google says in its FAQ that it records Internet address, date, time, browser type, operating system and a cookie ID.
Author and entrepreneur John Battelle received word from Google this week that the company can perform two important types of matches. (We confirmed this with Google and followed up with additional questions.)
First, given a number of search terms, Google can produce a list of people (identified by Internet address or cookie) who searched for a given term. Second, given a collection of Internet addresses, Google can produce a list of the terms searched by the user of a given address. That effectively creates an electronic dossier of an individual.
Q: What about links people click on from search engine results? Can that information be turned over too?
Yes. Through a process known as redirection, Yahoo and AOL record what links people click. Unless the companies discard these records, they would be fair game for a subpoena.
Q: Let's say the Bush administration wanted to obtain a list of the names or Internet addresses of anyone who typed "how to grow marijuana" or "how to cheat on income taxes" into Google. Could that be done?
Probably. If the Electronic Communications Privacy Act does not apply, all that's required is a subpoena from a prosecutor, and no prior approval from a judge is necessary. One Harvard law professor calls the subpoena power "akin to a blank check."
"The threshold rule is relevance," says Paul Ohm, the
Using the examples of finding out who did searches like "how to make meth" or "how to kill the president," Ohm says prosecutors "would have a very good argument that it's relevant to an investigation."
Q: If Google knows I'm connecting from a dynamically assigned Internet address of 22.214.171.124 one day, and 126.96.36.199 the next day and 188.8.131.52 the third, how can it link my queries together to create that dossier?
This is where "cookies" come in. A cookie is simply a device for a Web site to recognize people the next time they return. Google, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft all set cookies by default. (Microsoft's expire in 2016; Yahoo's in 2010; Google's in 2038. AOL sets a third-party cookie that expires in 2011.)
In the above example, Google.com would set a cookie for whoever's connecting from Internet address 184.108.40.206 the first day, and then figure out that the same Web browser is connecting from 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168 the next two days. If people are logged in to their Google account, this makes the process even easier, of course.
Q: Even if a search engine company knows my Internet address is 22.214.171.124, and links my previous searches together, how can they--or the government--get my name, home address or other information?
If you have a Google account for products like Gmail, Google Groups, Personalized Search or Google Alerts, Google knows your e-mail address and other personal information, which it can be forced to disclose. If a Web publisher signs up for Google AdSense for advertising revenue, Google will have the publisher's real name, mailing address and Social Security Number.
If a person doesn't use any other Google services, all the company can divulge in response to a subpoena is that person's Internet address. Then whoever's asking about the person will send a second subpoena to the person's Internet service provider to find out billing information. This is a relatively straightforward procedure used by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in thousands of file-swapping lawsuits.
Q: Has anyone ever sent search engines a subpoena or other kind of legal request for someone's search terms?
We don't know. Google and Yahoo refused to answer the question, though there is no law prohibiting them from doing so.
AOL said only that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act would apply. Microsoft was by far the most forthcoming. With the exception of the Justice Department subpoena for search terms (without user identities) last year, Microsoft said it has "not received either criminal or civil requests related to MSN Search data."
Microsoft also said it "has never received either criminal or civil requests" to produce the lists of people who typed in a search term. Oddly, the other companies were not nearly as open.
Q: How long do companies keep records of my search terms?
Microsoft, Google and Yahoo all said they keep data as long as it's necessary, which could mean forever. Microsoft did add that the company is "looking at ways" to provide users with the option to delete their search histories, and Yahoo made a similar statement.
AOL, on the other hand, says it deletes personally identifiable data after 30 days.
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