Until the four major US search engines were subpoenaed by the government, searcher anonymity and privacy was a yawn of concern for most, even if there were a few Paul Reveres out there. After complying with the order, though MSN and others promised no personally identifiable information was given, the slippery slope got a whole lot slicker.
Among the indignant protests that came noisily tumbling to the front of our minds was a recollection of the Fourth Amendment. But EPIC.org's Sherwin Siy, speaking to a surprisingly small group at SES NY, says the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure, doesn't apply in civil matters.
The panel assembled for the Search and Privacy track at SES also included MSN's Ramez Naam, SearchEngineWatch.com's Danny Sullivan, and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu.
Wu, who co-authored the book "Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a Borderless World," framed it as a civil liberties issue that went beyond the US government.
"This just the beginning," said Wu, giving a harrowing prediction of abuse by governments around the world. "There are many governments that are interested in this," he said.
Perhaps even more eye opening, the panel agreed that the better a company is at aggregating data, and not destroying it, the more attractive that data will be to government entities.
The issue of privacy isn't so much about what the US Dept. of Justice received, which was a basic list of queries and time frames. The issue surrounded what could be obtained in the future. Wu was quick to mention that European law was much stricter about user privacy than US law.
As WebProNews has covered in the past, the index kept by search engines like Google may have a tremendous amount of personally identifiable information that at the very least has a registered IP address. But some query logs will also hold an email address if a personalized service is used.
Siy pointed out that a subpoena to an Internet service provider would reveal to the government (or others) who was using a specific IP address. But also at issue here is the impact the ease of information retrieval has on the culture.
Public records, for example, at one time were difficult to find. Siy said they "went from the basement to the Web and are easily discovered. Until the information was available online, it wasn't worth it to anyone to find it."
But public records and publicly viewable information are a small hiccup compared the personal information Web users trade on a daily basis to acquire the services they desire.
"It's a value exchange," said Naam, referencing the benefits of personalization services offered by high-profile companies like Google, AOL, Yahoo, and MSN. Users agree to trade a little (or a lot) of privacy to make their online experience richer.
The key question, then, is whether the benefits of personalized service outweigh a certain level of privacy. The personal information granted to Google is stored on Google's server. How long will the search engine be able to resist government subpoenas at home and abroad?
If a Web user is willing to forgo personalized features, they can use anonymizing software to help maintain their privacy.
Toward the end of the session, Sullivan expressed the need for some sort of Search Privacy Bill of Rights, and/or some kind of privacy notification posted on websites if only to avoid subpoena.