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Google vs. DOJ: Privacy implications for Government Information

As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch points out, the current Department of Justice (DOJ) Supeona for search engine data is not a direct attack on privacy:

AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo DID NOT VIOLATE THE PRIVACY of any user by handing over this information. No private data was revealed. Nevertheless, by not pushing back against such a bad request for data, it leaves open the real fear that they might not push back if the US government decided to go on a real fishing expedition in the future. Privacy may not have been lost but trust was.

Mr. Sullivan than posits one possible future data mining scenario that would harm privacy:

Picture this scenario. The US government wants to pass a new law on monitoring terrorists. In order to see the presence of searchers seeking out TOMs (that’s Terrorist Oriented Materials) through search results, they ask each search engine to hand over an entire week’s worth of search data completely with cookie info, IP addresses and registration information.

The purpose? They need to study how many people are seeking TOMs to have stats to support the law they want to pass. This is pretty much the same argument they are using in the current case, by the way.

The above is a hypothetical scenario, but giving the federal government’s demonstrated interest in data mining, it’s plausible.

Where’s the connection to government information here? It’s that the government both holds a lot of data that could conceiveably be of interest to people wishing to harm our country (as well as 1000s of innocent uses) AND that it could mine searches from government sites very quietly. The current story made news only because Google choose to fight the data request. Monitoring who is accessing what on government web sites wouldn’t make the papers because no court would be involved. DOJ could mine gov’t information users to their hearts content and make predications that would likely snare many innocent users while failing to snare many bad actors.

If on the other hand, the public had web access to locally distributed electronic information across the country, DOJ would have to have to make hundreds of requests for access logs. This would increase the likelihood of them looking for suspected terrorists instead of pulling in all government information users and letting the computer sort them out.

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