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search engine privacy strategies


GoogleSign  Yesterday, Greg Beck asked “Can Everything You Search Be Used Against You?“, in a posting at the Consumer Law & Policy Blog (Dec. 26, 2006).   Worries over the data collected and retained by search engines about their users — Personally Identifiable Information (PII) — made a lot of news in 2006, when the Justice Department obtained data from AOL, Yahoo, and MSN on millions of search queries in support of the government’s defense of the Child Online Protection Act.  At that time, Google resisted the broad data request.

Beck’s posting at CLPB describes a recent criminal case in federal court, where evidence was used about Google Searches made by the defendant on topics related to the crime (which involved breaking into a wireless network service and interfering with other users). The conviction was upheld by the 7th Circuit court of appeals, in United States v. Schuster.  (see Declan McCullagh’s CNET article “Google searches nab wireless hacker,” Dec. 20, 2006, for more details)

We can’t offer you any legal strategies for quashing subpoenas aimed at search engines, or striking the fruits of such discovery in your trial.  We can remind you, nonetheless, as Greg Beck notes: “Google has acknowledged that it can trace searches back to a particular computer or, in some cases, to a particular user.”  The information would allow Google, prosecutors, or opponents in a civil suit to reconstruct your searches and to know which search result links you clicked.   As the World Privacy Forum explains (“Search Engine Privacy Tips,” Aug. 17, 2006):

“People often view search engines as benign blank boxes to which they can pose any question they want and not suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Search engines large and small typically keep logs of users’ search terms, with some search engines going further and matching those terms to your computer address, your name, and other items, depending on how much information you have shared with the search engine.

“Before you type your search terms into a search engine box or register for extra services at a search engine, please be aware of the potential consequences. Searches can come back to haunt you, especially if they are problematic and can be tied directly to you in some way.”

magglass  You can help yourself avoid difficultues by watching what you search for, cleaning up your cookies, and perhaps using an anonymizing tool.  If you click to see the rest of this posting, you will find a list of webpages and articles offering strategies to use in keeping your search engine activities private or anonymous (whether from housemates, government investigators, or litigation opponents):

 Here are some useful resources:

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