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A search for privacy

| Sunday, Jan. 29, 2006

The government wants to know what you have been searching for.

Typically, that darn pesky First Amendment might stop open-ended government searches of your Internet search activity. But when the official excuse is to combat child pornography, many Americans will nod in agreement -- conditioned to automatically respond affirmatively to the emotional stimulus, Bill of Rights be damned.

However, there is an obscure computer program that could ensure the privacy of virtually any Web user.

Before picturing a "1984"-ish monitoring of the Internet, a little background.

A judge could force Google to do what Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL already have done -- hand over records of what keywords have been searched for and a list of results. The feds are not asking for people's names and addresses. Yet.

Google argues that turning over a week's worth of information and about 1 million Web address would compromise trade secrets while being useless to the authorities.

Imagine government agents sifting through masses of data from last week to determine the most popular searches for Google.com, Google News and Google's consumer-friendly Froogle. Picture government snoops discovering when and how the searches were done. Did they coincide with an election, indictment or natural or man-made disaster?

What was the most popular software• Who are the most popular retailers• What were the most popular news outlets and what kinds of patterns, trends and surprises have there been in other countries, say from Australia to Vietnam?

Many Americans would call that a monstrous Orwellian violation of privacy by Big Brother. They should call it Google Zeitgeist.

That Google information and so much more can be seen by anyone online at www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html

That might explain why Google did not use a privacy argument when it did not honor the government's command, according to Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for the CNET News.com Internet media company.

"Is this just the beginning of using search engines to monitor what Americans are doing?" asks Mr. McCullagh, who suggests that those concerned about privacy should delete from their computers the so-called cookies containing personal information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation defends free speech and privacy on the Internet. It has a little-known magic bullet that could protect every user's search history, according to Wendy Seltzer, assistant professor of Internet law and privacy at Brooklyn Law School. She also founded the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, online at chillingeffects.org . It's a joint project of the foundation and universities such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

Tor is a free anonymous Internet communications system that incrementally builds a circuit of encrypted connections through various servers, Ms. Seltzer said. This so-called "onion routing" had been funded by the Office of Naval Research. The Navy needs secure Internet communications, too.

The Tor software essentially neutralizes subpoenas demanding the identities of users because there is no record tying the function to the person, she said.

Details: tor.eff.org .

"We hope that this Google subpoena will make more people think about their privacy," Seltzer said.

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