TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Your Life as an Open Book

Your Life as an Open Book

Monty Solomon (
Sun, 13 Aug 2006 00:13:28 -0400

The New York Times

Privacy advocates and search industry watchers have long warned that
the vast and valuable stores of data collected by search engine
companies could be vulnerable to thieves, rogue employees, mishaps or
even government subpoenas.

Four major search companies were served with government subpoenas for
their search data last year, and now once again, privacy advocates can
say, "We told you so."

AOL's misstep last week in briefly posting some 19 million Internet
search queries made by more than 600,000 of its unwitting customers
has reminded many Americans that their private searches - for
solutions to debt or bunions or loneliness - are not entirely their

So, as one privacy group has asserted, is AOL's blunder likely to be
the search industry's "Data Valdez," like the 1989 Exxon oil spill
that became the rallying cry for the environmental movement?

Maybe. But in an era when powerful commercial and legal forces ally in
favor of holding on to data, and where the surrender of one's digital
soul happens almost imperceptibly, change is not likely to come

Most of the major search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN collect
and store information on what terms are searched, when they were
queried and what computer and browser was used. And to the extent that
the information can be used to match historic search behavior
emanating from a specific computer, it is a hot commodity.

As it stands now, little with regard to search queries is private. No
laws clearly place search requests off-limits to advertisers, law
enforcement agencies or academic researchers, beyond the terms that
companies set themselves.

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