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John Soat
John Soat
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IT Confidential: Google Vs. The FBI: Who's Got More Right To Data?

Both organizations collect mounds of data. What are they going to do with it?

Whom should I be more concerned about, privacywise--Google or the FBI? It's not an idle comparison. OK, maybe it is, but stick with me for a moment.

Google got heat last week over a couple of perceived privacy overreaches (see story, p. 20). First, the search giant's newest feature, Street View, part of its Google Maps application that adds street-level photographs, came under fire for its potential to show people in compromising situations, such as smoking or exiting porno shops.

Then Google bowed to pressure from a European privacy watchdog group and said it would "anonymize" search data--chop off URL identifiers--after holding it for 18 months, instead of its former open-ended data-retention policy. This is an end run by Google to prevent bumping into the European Union's privacy rules, which are stricter than those in the United States. Google said it might go to a 24-month policy, if U.S. law requires it.

The FBI got heat last week over a couple of perceived privacy overreaches, as well. First, the agency's internal audit committee concluded that agents had indeed overstepped their bounds in soliciting information, such as phone, E-mail, and financial records, using national security letters, and to a much greater extent than a Justice Department report in March had indicated. But here's my favorite part: According to The Washington Post, most of the NSL violations "were instances in which companies, such as telephone and Internet providers, gave more information than the FBI sought." Who's helping whom here?

Also last week, two congressmen on the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Investigations asked the Government Accountability Office to look hard at a proposal by the FBI to spend $12 million to develop "a new, mammoth data mining center" to help identify terrorist suspects. The National Security Branch Analysis Center could hold 6 billion records by 2012, which "amounts to 20 separate 'records' for each man, woman, and child in the United States," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., in a letter to the GAO.

Let's face it--when it comes to IT projects, the FBI's track record isn't that good. Remember its Virtual Case File project? On the other hand, Google's IT track record is so good it's, well, scary.

I guess I should be concerned about the FBI's data accumulation plans. I might console myself with the idea that the FBI will never get its huge data mining operation built. It would represent a big waste of my tax dollars, but it wouldn't be the first--or last--time that happened.

But the fact is, I want the FBI to succeed. I believe in what the FBI is doing. If a mammoth data mining operation is what it takes to stop domestic terror attacks, I'm all for it. How can I help?

I'm certainly not behind Google in the same way. I appreciate its search engine, which I use quite a bit. The name has even started to grow on me. It's just that selling ad space next to search results isn't quite as inspiring, or as important to the national welfare, as fighting the war on terror.

So I'm more concerned, privacywise, about Google and what it intends to do with all that search data it's accumulating. Not to mention the data flowing through its E-mail, data storage, and app services.

Uncle Sam gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. On the other hand, those Google guys creep me out.

Am I off base? Tell me where I'm being paranoid, and throw in an industry tip, at or phone 516-562-5326.

Rob Preston's column will return next week.

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