What Google Search Reveals About Us

Billions of search terms can paint a detailed picture. But who gets to see it?
David Townsend, CEO of eFor Computer Forensics, who served as a forensic consultant in the recent trials of Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, compares computers to surveillance devices because they can yield search information and other data. "Say a civil suit comes in, and they've erased all this stuff," Townsend says. "I can pull the HTML of the Web page back up that says Yahoo on it, and it says what his search terms were."

The evidence left behind during Web searches can be telling, yet it also can be misconstrued or used with malice. Even those who think the U.S. government is looking after their best interests may find themselves in disputes with colleagues, employers, ex-spouses, insurers, or competitors. In such circumstances, bits of Web usage information can be connected to present an unwelcome, unflattering, or damning picture--and one that may or may not be accurate.

Data Policies Key

For companies concerned about these issues, Townsend says it's critical to have a formal data-retention policy--and to follow it. If a court order arrives and an employee has been dumping data contrary to the rules, "they're in a pickle," he says.

Privacy laws eventually will be revised to address the perils confronting Google and others. Until then, the way around this bind is to minimize the amount of data that's collected and retained, an approach taken by many companies whose business models, unlike Google's, aren't based on indexing vast databases. "You can't respond to a request for data if you don't have the data," Everett-Church says.

The issue has made it to Washington. U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last month introduced the Eliminate Warehousing of Consumer Internet Data Act of 2006, aimed at protecting consumer privacy and preventing the indefinite storage of data.

An 800-person survey released last month by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Connecticut suggests Americans are divided about whether search engines should turn over information about their users' search habits to the government: 50% say the companies shouldn't comply with a government request, while 44% say they should.

The fact that only 30% support government monitoring of Internet search behavior while 65% oppose it suggests that respondents separated the issue of obedience to the government and the issue of whether monitoring is appropriate. And 60% of people oppose permanent storage of search behavior by the likes of Google and Yahoo.

"People are getting increasingly wary about government surveillance of any type," says Samuel Best, director of UConn's Center for Survey Research. "It's likely what we're seeing here is the beginning of a big battle on information technologies and how data gets stored."

Illustration by John Sledd

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