With search engine subpoenas in the news, searchers turn wary

Katie Hafner of the Times interviews some users who wonder if their Google searches will land them on a government list somewhere.

You knew Google records every search. Every click. Sets cookies that last years. Stores your gmail forever. Scans your hard drive. And so on. You also realize that there's really no personally identifying information in the mountainous gobs of URLs and search queries the government is asking for. Even so, you're getting uncomfortable, you're thinking, maybe I should be more circumspect.

You're not alone, reports Katie Hafner of the NY Times. Meet Kathryn Hanson, who worries that her Googling of the Britishism "rent boy" (male prostitute) would land her in a "Navy prison in the dead of night." And Jim Kowats, a former Discovery Channel producer who did a lot of searching on "circumcision" for an upcoming program. "When you're researching something like that and you look up the word 'circumcision,' you're going to end up with all kinds of pictures of naked children," he said. "And that can be misconstrued."

Susan P. Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, agreed that the sheer volume of information obtained by the government was likely to dilute privacy threats.

"More experienced Internet users would understand that in the mountain of search-related data available in response to a subpoena, it is very unlikely that anything referring to them personally would be revealed," Professor Crawford said.

She likened one's online activity to walking down the street. "We walk down the street all the time and we can be seen there," she said. "We also move around online, and can be 'seen' to some extent there as well. But we continue to go for walks."

Still, there appears to be a chilling effect on users' willingness to research freely. 

[Hanson] pointed to a continuing interest she has in the Palestinian elections. "If I followed my curiosity and did some Web research, going to Web sites of the parties involved, I would honestly wonder whether someone in my government would someday see my name on a list of people who went to 'terrorist' Web sites," she said.

Mr. Kowats, the television producer, shares that fear. "Where does it stop?" he said. "What about file sharing? Scalping tickets? Or traveling to Cuba? What if you look up abortion? Who says you can't look up those things? What are the limits? It's the little chipping away. It's a slippery slope."

 

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