Monday, January 23, 2006

Search engines cooperating with the police

Microsoft Confirms Turning Over Search Data to Feds: This covers not just Microsoft but the other search engines as well. The story is there's an obscure court proceeding going on, under which the Department of Justice (DoJ) has subpoenad records from the search engines as to search terms. MSN, Yahoo and AOL have apparently cooperated with the request, while Google has refused to cooperate.

Let me bring into the conversation this: Re: Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression ? In that case some organization is organizing a move to require "Internet Companies" to impede cooperation with repressive regimes who want to surveil what their citizens are doing. But with this request from the DoJ, I wonder just how you want to define "repressive regime"?

And then we have Microsoft's side: Privacy and MSN Search posted by the MSN Web Search general manager.

As the eWeek article suggests, this is a very worrisome privacy issue. Suppose the government surveillance system were to know about every search query you were to make? It's easy to think you're just searching around the Internet, and the search results are very ephemeral and disappear very quickly. But when you're Googling or MSN'ing or Yahoo'ing, the search engine is able to make a record of your searches. The search engine might even remember searches you did before, the items you clicked on before, and helpfully rank the results based on what you searched for previously. This is information the search engines already collect.

It's important to note that the search engines are unable to identify YOU. Instead they know specific IP addresses, and are able to track which IP address did what. Or, in some cases the search engine installs a long-lived cookie, and with data in the cookie is able to correlate activity you do from day to day even if your ISP gives you a different IP address each day.

The MSN general manager says all they turned over was IP addresses and search queries. No personal identifying data.

It would be up to the government surveillance system to correlate IP addresses with people. This isn't easy, but is doable. For example my ISP assigns me a fixed IP address, and therefore the governmnet surveillance system might have an arrangement to query my ISP to retrieve the identity of people to which specific IP addresses are assigned.