Big brother isn't watching - Google is

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Several years ago, while researching a story about Internet pornography, I did a few Web searches that took me to some websites that I would never want my children to stumble across.

Although my editor (and my wife) knew what I was doing, the thought crossed my mind more than once about the potential damage to my reputation if someone found out about the sites I'd visited without knowing why.

These days, in my other job as writer of the Monitor website's Daily Update on Terrorism and Security, I regularly use a search engine to find stories, papers, or websites using words like "terrorism," "Al Qaeda," "bombings," "Taliban" - you name it. Again, the thought has crossed my mind about the kind of sites I'm visiting and how that would look to some bored tech worker at the Department of Homeland Security.

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So when I heard that the United States government recently had asked Google, the Internet's most widely used search engine, to hand over a chunk of its data on Web searches, it made me sit up and pay attention. The request was ostensibly to help the government persuade a court to support a law that penalizes websites that allow children to access porn. While Google's refusal to provide the data turns out not to be the challenge to privacy portrayed in much of the media, the government's actions in this case do have long-term implications that need to be examined.

But first, let me answer the question that has been on many people's minds: How could the government use the data from Google (or the other search engines that have already handed over data) to find out what we've been searching for on the Internet?

Answer: IP addresses and "cookies."

Every computer that accesses the Internet receives an IP (Internet Protocol) address. It's a unique number that allows you to look for information on the Internet, and then allows that information to find you. In this case, think of it as your "home address" on the Web.

When you ask Google to search for, oh, I don't know ... Liberace, your IP address accompanies the data about the requested search as Google looks for fan sites. Once Google finds a site, it uses your IP address to route the information to your computer.

Often, some of this information about searches is stored on a "cookie" (a small text file) placed in your computer by the search engine. This is especially true if you take advantage of extra options offered by many search sites that require registration of some kind. (Just about every website uses cookies.)

Google and other search engines keep detailed logs of requests made to them. In fact, you can track what most people are looking for at SearchEngineWatch.com (http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/article.php/2156041).

So the answer to anyone's question about privacy concerns and Internet searches is exactly the same as what you may have heard about e-mail: That is, don't put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The New York Times. (Ask Bill Gates about that one.) With Web searches, the information is all out there, which is why some were concerned about what the government had asked Google to do.

But let's clear up a couple of things. First of all, the government asked Google for 1 million Web addresses. Any tech-savvy person could come up with that information. (Here's one: www.csmonitor.com - now the Feds only need 999,999 more.) In fact, the government could have gotten that information by itself. As SearchEngineWatch.com puts it, "It's sort of like the government asking a major car dealership to give you a list of random license plate numbers rather than the Department of Motor Vehicles. Surely the government can generate its own list without forcing a private company to do this."

Second, the government's request did not ask for any personal data. It just wanted a list of searches done over a one-week period, with no IP addresses. Again, it probably could have simply monitored the search sites that track what people search for on the Web.

Why did Google fight the request, when other search sites didn't? My guess is that the answer is twofold: competition and precedent. Google is extremely reluctant to let others know how it works. So, on the one hand, it has its own interests very much at heart in its refusal to pass over data to the government.

There are already laws, of course, that require websites and Internet service providers to hand over information to the government. But by making the government go to court to get the data, Google, I believe, wants to make sure that the idea does not become so widely accepted that the government can ask for and receive information without any legal authority.

But if you're concerned about the privacy of your Internet searches, software programs are available that can mask your IP address. To find them, well, you can just "Google it," as they say. Just be careful how you phrase that search, OK?

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