Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

Google searches, privacy and paranoia

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 10, 2006
(Issue 2406, Controversial and Combative)

As this is being written, Google has just held a press conference to announce it will defy a federal subpoena to review aggregate search data.

o be honest, the White House's subpoena of Google has politics written all over it – the administration says it needs the records to devise a policy to prevent minors from accessing pornography or other harmful materials online.

But why do you need to review search engine records for that? How about hiring some competent staff to do their own searches? The feds say they want to see if Google's and Yahoo's content filters really work at protecting kids from porn or not. So you can't try them yourselves because ... ?

Still, given that no personally identifying information was sought, Yahoo said it had no problem complying with its subpoena. And the feds said no other search engine company served with a subpoena had defied it.

Paranoia as philosophy

Even Google acknowledged that the subpoena requested no personally identifying information – instead, the government was looking for a history of the search parameters people use in looking stuff up online.

So there was zero – 0 – chance that anything you or I looked up could be tied to us.

Which raises the question as to why Google played the privacy card.

There's the unmistakable whiff of politics about Google's response, too. Google has been in the cross hairs of the privacy activists of late. These "privacy experts" have publicly fretted that all that data Google collects from its search engine, its Google AdSense online advertising program and other products (its new online books searches, for instance) make Google a potential Big Brother, snooping on us without our knowledge.

(Of course, this whole "privacy" movement is a cottage industry all its own. Apparently all you have to do to become a "privacy activist" is apply to the IRS for non-profit status, come up with a snazzy name – Americans United for Privacy or some such – and start your fund-raising. Make sure you have an up-to-date media contact list, and every time any government agency or large corporation announces anything, issue a press release expressing your "deep reservations" about how everyone's privacy is threatened by whatever was just announced.)

Piety vs. the bottom line

So this subpoena provided Google a nice chance to get the privacy activists off its case for awhile, and at least temporarily play the role of protector of its customers' privacy against some phantom but still scary Orwellian Big Brother figure. And best yet, it's a phantom but still scary Orwellian Big Brother figure not named Google.

And it worked, at least in the short term – aided no doubt by Yahoo's obeying the subpoena. Immediately after Google's announcement, the self-proclaimed "privacy advocates" and activists issued statements praising Google's commitment to protecting privacy. (The fact that privacy was never at risk or in question is seemingly beside the point.)

Still, a business analyst for CBS Radio News offered a more likely explanation for Google's defiance: If people begin to worry that their searches might be accessed by the government, they're less likely to do as many searches, hurting Google's advertising-based business model.

Common sense would lead one to believe that the more serious searches we all do would continue unabated. Kids still have to look up King Arthur for their history project, parents still need to find the school's attendance office number when the kids are sick, and the rest of us are still looking for information on our business competitors.

None of that is going away because of vague fears of federal snooping.

Now, I'll grant you, there well might be fewer searches for "naked cheerleaders."

I'm just not convinced that would constitute a civil rights emergency.


For those whose paranoia has gotten the better of them, there are ways of ensuring your searches can never be tied to you.

If you use Google or Yahoo as your search engine of choice, make sure you're not signed in when you perform a search.

But since every Web server tracks visitors' I.P. addresses, this isn't foolproof – while a subpoena to Google or Yahoo wouldn't identify your personal searches by name, a separate subpoena to your Internet service provider (assuming a judge found probable cause to suspect you of criminal activity and issued the subpoena) would divulge your IP address or addresses (some ISPs assign a different one every time you log in), which could all be cross-checked against the search engine databases.

So to really put your mind at ease, you could always use to block your true IP address while you're online. Last time I delved deeply into it, had set up their servers (which you go through to block your own IP) so that they had no way of knowing what IP you had been assigned – so that even if subpoenaed, they'd be unable to provide any meaningful information.

Where else can you put your fears to rest for just $30 a year?