By Robert Kuttner | December 3, 2005
THE NEW York Times recently reported that in a North Carolina
strangulation-murder trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence the
fact that the defendant's Google searches had included the words
'neck' and 'snap.' The Times noted that the evidence had come from the
defendant's home computer, but could just as easily have come from
Google's whole business-model includes keeping track of users'
searches by putting 'cookies' (tracking devices) on users' own
computers, and then using the results to customize ad offerings that
pop up when we use their ingenious free search service.
In the era of the misnamed USA Patriot Act, which allows warrantless
police searches that are not even disclosed to the target, Google plus
Dick Cheney is a recipe for undoing the liberties for which the
original patriots of the American Revolution bled and died. Under the
Patriot Act, anyone suspected of enabling terrorism can be subjected
to these fishing expeditions. Depending on a prosecutor's whims, that
includes all of us.
In the 18th-century era of star-chamber courts and despotic monarchs,
the US Constitution put an end to government as prosecutor, judge, and
jury. Unreasonable searches and seizures were explicitly prohibited by
the Sixth Amendment. People (not just citizens) were guaranteed the
right to confront their accusers and to know the charges against
them. There were no 'national security' loopholes.
Google's internal slogan is, charmingly, "Don't be evil." Well, the
interaction of cyber-snooping and the unreasonable searches authorized
by the Patriot Act is pure evil.
Herewith an idea that I am putting into the public domain, which could
make some computer-whiz a billionaire: One of Google's competitors
could guarantee users of its search engines that all data keeping
track of searches will be permanently discarded after 24 hours. The
search process could still learn a broad pattern of users' purchasing
tastes, if we wish to be party to a bargain of being marketed to in
exchange for the convenience of free searches.
The same libertarian computer entrepreneur could offer e-mail
software, in which old messages are permanently erased unless the user
deliberately opts to retain them.
Google, like Microsoft and IBM before it, may be the current market
leader in whiz-bang technology based on sheer inventive genius. But if
Google is not careful, some competitor with a genuine regard for
privacy could displace it.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I have very mixed feelings about
'cookies'. There are times, that like 'speed dialing' on my phone and
'automatic call back' that they are tremendously helpful. I know I
very much enjoy automatically filling in the blanks on forms I must
deal with on the computer because a 'cookie' or a file somewhere on
my system has the information available because some other computer
put it there. But, as the author notes, if your computer is for some
reason or another confiscated or otherwise compromised, there can be
hell to pay. Why should telco be allowed to sell 'speed dialing' or
'automatic redial' and 'authmatic callback' but Google not be allowed
to deposit cookies (the very same thing really) out of some privacy
concerns? It comes down to whether or not it is a good idea to have
repetitive information on your systems or not. PAT]