Google: Protecting Your Privacy?

Google Bomb

What are you looking for?

The Department of Justice asked Google last summer for a list of every indexed website and every searched-for term over a month-long period. They say it’s about protecting kids from sketchy web-fare. It’s an unfathomably broad request (and it’s not about child porn, but we’ll explain that later), and Google refused. If they hadn’t, would we even have known about this new intrusion into our private lives?

So we know that if we give our credit card number out over the Internet, someone else might find it and make use of it. We know — perhaps — they can read our emails at will. Do we know, however, that everything we look for can be known and made public?

John Battelle calls search a “database of intentions,” a record of everything we want or want to know. But each of those searches you run — about a medical condition, about divorce law, about no-credit loans — sits in a database maintained by Google or Yahoo or Microsoft, each one attached to your unique computer address. In short, Google knows what you’re looking for. What if someone else wants to know?

How much do search engines know about us? Can we trust them to keep it to themselves? And if they’re not going to protect us, how can we protect ourselves?

Inspired in part by a comment from Scarequotes

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Assistant Professor of Culture and Communication, NYU


Vaidhyanathan pronounces his own name (MP3)

Mark Rotenberg

Executive Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center

Chris Sherman

Associate Editor, Search Engine Watch

Jason Schultz

Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation


Extra-Credit Reading

Om Malik, “Living a Cached Life”

John Battelle, “What’s the Big Deal?”

SearchEngineWatch, Administration Demands Search Data; Google Saya No; AOL, MSN & Yahoo Said Yes”

Danny Sullivan, SearchEngineWatch,“What People Search For – Most Popular Keywords”

Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing, “Living the observed life in the digital world”

Kirk McElhearn, “iTunes: Apple’s New Spyware and Adware Application?”

Related Content

  • A little yellow bird

    To quote Charles Grodin from the awsum 1988 movie “Midnight Run” w/ Deniro: “Oh, I’m SURE we’re COMPLETELY safe…” (NOT!) Google may or not be good guys here–we live in interesting times–but they’re definitely not saints. What about their virtually never-expiring tracking cookie–what is it, thirty-plus years? What if the company is a double agent–keeping up a front for we, the consumers, while cozying up to the New Bush Order?

  • cheesechowmain

    Is the Patriot Act the legal basis for this request? Or is there some other legal basis being used?

  • Brendan

    DOJ made the request as part of its seven-year-long defense of the Child Online Protection Act. The goal of DOJ’s defense is to prove that Internet filtering is ineffective, that the only way to protect children from obscene material on the Internet is to place the onus on the content creator to not be obscene.

  • A little yellow bird

    “cheesechowmain”: Team Bush has claimed the executive prerogative to do whatever it sees fit, legal or not.

  • cheesechowmain

    Thank you Brendan and A little yellow bird.

    Cursory Listener Rhetorical Question: How can a consumer vote with their feet if most corporate entities and public agencies are willing to turn over private consumer information? Obviously, the invisible hand doesn’t think too much about privacy liberties. I believe many European Union countries take this issue more seriously; though I may be suffering some memory distortion here.

  • Brendan

    Little Yellow Bird: The Child Online Protection Act was passed in 1998, and Janet Reno filed the first several appeals in its defense. DOJ’s subpoena in this case is outrageous, but not illegal, and it’s certainly not a Bush White House problem.

  • A little yellow bird

    Brendan: But it is suspect that it is popping up now, with the frantic and unbounded power grabbing going on now. Any excuse serves those seeking power, any ruse. BTW, to my view, this whole process of encroaching government is a continuum.

  • cheesechowmain

    Can the DOJ subpoena companies who have data off-shore? I thinking companies with Brick and Mortar presence in the US (not necessarily incorporated or headquartered in the US), and have data centers and servers off-shore? In fact, data centers may be strewn over several continents. How does the legality of searches work for this?

  • Out of curiosity, would Google need to hand over information like this if they moved their corporate headquarters and/or their servers into another country? How much power does the company have over an international corporation?

  • A little yellow bird

    Well, I guess I’ll hafta go back to my first pr0n–staring hungrily @ the crack o’ dawn…

  • A little yellow bird

    BTW, like the perennial tussle over flag-burning, it seems it’s time to discuss what the heck “obscenity” is again.

  • Brendan

    Hey all, quick question: What search would you find most embarrassing if revealed? Robin and I here in the studio are watching some search results in realtime on, and we just saw someone search for “Alyssa Milano” and then “Alyssa Milano nude.”

    I admit, for example, to searching for the lyrics to “Almost Paradise,” the love song from the Footloose soundtrack.

  • cheesechowmain

    My take-away from this discussion: Crawl back into the cave and stay off the grid!

  • wt_76

    Pertaining to the comment about Verizon protecting our privacy rights, When they were asked to provide info about internet users they refused because many people who had broadband at that time were doing so for illegal purposes. I don’t believe Verizon to care about our rights, just their profits.

  • A little yellow bird

    Brendan: HAH! You’re pretending to be so sweet, ’cause your mommy reads your work; plus you’re trying to show how sensitive and cute you are. Bet you’re a headbangin’ Motorhead fan.

  • I keep track of the search strings that lead people to my website, and some of those are pretty interesting. The ones I found most recently that might embarass whoever it was who searched for them:

    winnie the pooh slash fanfiction archive

    how many places is my browsing being saved at asshole? (relevant!)

    catsuits quebec

    how to have a conversation 101

    almost done with my period when I get this external tickling itchy feeling (I’m not making these up)

    my uncircumcised penis sucks (REALLY not making these up)

    (and my personal favourite) pants of spee

    Lots more where those came from. I’ve been collecting these for a year now.

  • A little yellow bird

    BTW, I’m not embarrassed by my searches–I’m terrified of what the gummint may do.

  • I see it’s ok for Google to collect information; it’s not ok for the government to take a peek. The “do no evil” crowd is amusing if not hypocrtiical.

    Of interest to this discussion

    Question: In the new world information order do we have a responsibility to be transparent beyond what we conventionally expect?

  • asruge

    There are a ton that would get me in trouble with my current girlfriend, but the worst would be if she could see some of my recent searches on old girlfriends. ugh.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Rochelle”: WOW! You’re WORSE than Google!

  • Worse than Google? Why? Because I report the strings that lead people to my site?

  • A little yellow bird

    BTW, “Rochelle”: I’ll trade with Mr. Uncut–what a lucky guy! He wasn’t mutilated without anasthaesia at eight days old!

  • wt_76

    If Google is forced to provide this data of who is searching for what then people will have to use proxy servers to remain anonymous. What will then stop govornment from forcing proxy server owners to provide user information. Once the line is broken. Is will become the standard practice and the reasons for obtaining this information will become more trivial.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Rochelle”: Are you working for the Canadian gummint?

  • nomolos

    A reasonable privacy protection law would begin by saying “Every person has a property interest in his or her own name and personal identifying information.”

    That property interest would be about as extensive as copyright protection, except that naturally people with the same name would have equal property rights in that name.

    Congress would never pass such a law. The pressure from banks, credit reporting companies, and mailing list companis would be too great.

  • You don’t have to call me “Rochelle”, btw. It’s actually my name. No quotation marks required.

  • nomolos

    One other thought: How much would it cost Google in lost ad revenues to offer its users an opt-out from having their search text collected? If I’m interested in protecting this information, my concerns will extend to Google as well as to the FBI.

  • A random sample of a million items (which is, I’ve heard, what was offered by Google and refused by the ‘government’) should be sufficient for answering the U.S. government Executive Branch’s statistical questions. Hence, why do they require “all the data”? The Administration must, therefore, have some other purpose in mind. Yes?

  • If you own a domain name and host it with a reputable web space provider, you will have access to the logs that record all of this stuff. Not just the search terms people use, but what IP address they’re from, what browser they’re using, what operating system, which pages you looked at and in what order…

    The internet is NOT passive. It’s not a one way street. It’s not like looking at a newspaper. When you load a page your computer is speaking to a computer I pay to serve pages. I get to know certain things about you when you step into my web. That’s true of every single webpage (including this one).

    I’m interested in search strings because of the way thath people construct their queries. I don’t research who these people are. I don’t post the IPs (though I suppose I could). In fact, my search string research is a category on my blog.

    I wish people were a bit more aware of how interactive the internet actually is. You’re never hidden on the internet.

  • A little yellow bird

    “nomolos”: I think that the current regime would want to know why you’re hiding–the DOJ would want a list from ISP’s and search engines of those trying to maintain their privacy.

  • A little yellow bird

    “hbryant”: YES!

  • A little yellow bird

    Rochelle: I’m just foolin’…I’m actually scared liquidless by all of this.

  • nomolos

    little yellow bird: Yes, that’s the rub. The set of people who value their privacy is itself a data set of interest — and much more valuable to you-know-who than a random sample of the consumer booboisie.

  • cheesechowmain

    My silliest search: “Nude killer squid”

  • I dunno, I’m actually of two minds about it. If they unhook the search terms from the IP addresses, they wouldn’t be able to trace any of the searches, and anyone looking at the data would only get the zeitgeist. I think search terms are fascinating and I would love to get even a momentary glimpse at the whole enchilada, but I don’t really know what the government thinks they’re going to get out of that. It’s a great research project. For a librarian. Otherwise…well, I wonder.

  • Potter

    I did get comfortable with the supermarket collecting data on everything I eat. That’s okay. That get’s them to stock what I like.

    I don’t mind Amazon keeping track of me either.

    Bad analysis of data……couple that with losing the right to defend yourself in court. Keep the government away from my cookies.

    “a radio conversation leaving cookie crumbs all over the internet”……. Chris

  • A little yellow bird

    You’re all full of it about your silliest searches. Nobody bought Saturday Night Fever either. Hypocrites… (actually, I really didn’t buy it–but I did buy a promo 12-inch vinyl single of the whole, uncensored “Love to Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer in SF, CA in ’85…) Grandma and Grandpa immaculately conceived your parents, too…

  • wt_76

    Hbryant I feel the same way!

    Look what they did with Iraq. They go into Iraq under the WMD pretext and when there are no WMD they just say sorry and they have accomplished their goal, invasion. They will use spin control until it blows over.

    Now they can use the underage children as a pretence for demanding this data, but who is to say that it will be used for that purpose. Who is to say that it won’t be used to find and suppress politcal opposition to the current administration… I mean regime. That type of scenario would make sense of why they ask for all the data. Think of it as the new Watergate.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Potter”: Right on! The market serves us better by knowing what we want–but the gummint only serves itself better by knowing us…

  • A little yellow bird

    OK, I’ll play: my silliest search was probably typing the whole of a limerick I wrote into the search line to see if it resembled any others (it didn’t!). I’m so proud. I’d love to reproduce it here, but decorum forbids it (I think?). In fact, the explanation is simple: “The limerick packs laughs anatomical/Into space that is quite economical./But the good ones I’ve seen/Are so seldom clean;/And the clean ones are so seldom comical!” -Bennett Cerf, maybe?

  • A little yellow bird

    If you’re not descended from tech-magnon man, a.k.a. australowbrowpatheticus, as I am, or not otherwise techtarded or diiferently-intellected’ you may benefit from these various ways of anonymizing yourself:,70051-0.html. (Found @ an excellent libertarian site today:

  • George Robertson

    I like to think that the fact that Google is at the eye of this is the result of a partnership of Microsoft and Karl Rove. Rove desperately needs a juicy crotch oriented issue to save the R’s from cedrtain defeat in the comming mid term elections and what better than a porn crusade to distract America from the reality that the government has run completely amok, wrecked your childrens economic future, and taken away your fundamental rights to privacy, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. microsoft which gave up the data immediately and before this became an issue, could not be happier to have anything distracting Google from the business of hiring all of the best talent in Redmond and eating away at the Microsfot monopoly.

  • anon12392

    Just like it’s none of the gummint’s business what I check out of the library or buy from Amazon, it’s none of it’s business what I search for. My more technical friends say that the searches aren’t associated with names — and somehow that makes it worse. How does this restrictive, backwards (if you disagree with the president you are a traitor)) administration then figure out if children are accessing pornography….because if you are over 21, it’s not criminal – or is this the Christian right wing, the scariest most evil faction in amerioca, at work wanting to restrict access to pornography, period. An d bottom line, google, yahoo, ect, shouldn’t be tracking our searches at all – the fact that the information exists at all for the gummit to try to get to is most disturbing of all.

  • A little yellow bird

    “George Robertson”: Nice fantasy, but this is all about a further consolidation of state policing powers, especially in the executive, and a further cowing of the populace. The feds will even “catch” some “miscreants” to show how effective they’re being, and people will bow out of various businesses and reduce free-flow of info and online products and services to make themselves less visible and subject to trouble. The government ultimately really does represent the collective, semi-conscious will of the people; or as it is sung: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’, when after all, it was you and me.”

  • jazzman

    Welcome to the digital-dystopia. Throughout history, the evolution of technology presents us with marvel and menace and the more powerful the technology the more the potential for less than ideal application. This is the so-called INFORMATION AGE (the latest in human paradigm shifts.) With GPS it’s possible to track one’s whereabouts, with point of sale data – one’s purchasing profile. With digital CATV and On-Demand Entertainment – one’s personal leisure predilections. With automotive computers – one’s driving habits. On-line transactions – Libraries – Work – Web Cams – Credit Cards – Cell Phones – Medical records – This call may be monitored/recorded for quality purposes, yada, yada. We leave digital spoors (spores) all over cyberspace on countless disk drives and tapes and backups. If you know that it’s possible to gather and use this information for or against you then forewarned is forearmed (absent the off-grid troglodyte barter/cash only scenario – if cash were outlawed and all monetary exchange were digital (no shortage of sci-fi on this theme) good luck shopping at the black supermarket, and if ALYB’s gummint can wangle it, they would like nothing better for you or me – of course they would exempt themselves as they routinely do.) Just assume that everything you do or say is recorded, open to view by basically anyone who really wants to bother and act accordingly – CYA if you feel it’s necessary. Follow the money. There are trillions (maybe more) of $ waiting to be dug out of the data mines (the digital mother lode – the richest in human history) and just as much “in kindâ€? value to our noble guardians who know what’s best for us (them!) and save us from ourselves and anyone deemed to be any kind of threat. This genie is out of the bottle and not likely to willingly return unless there’s a quid pro quo (monetary or in kind.) As to the Canadian option, they don’t even pretend to have a right to free speech (most other places either. See E-bay vs. France.) As to the legality of these actions, I quote from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madreâ€? “Badges??? We ain’t got no badges!!! We don’t need no badges!!! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!!!” and I paraphrase our fearless (fearful) leader. “Constitution? We don’t need no stinking Constitution. It’s just a goddamned piece of paper.â€? ALYB is correct when he says:>> The government ultimately really does represent the collective, semi-conscious will of the people;

  • I have criticized several of the shows as too closed-sourced, so it is appropriate to mention that I though today’s show was really well produced. The guests were knowledgeable and with a range of opinions and some of the other questions or comments from this BB were included.

    I agree that though we have hack-back tools to limit the eye of big brother government and corporate uncle from probing our minds, should we have to “arm” ourselves to protect our privacy? Fences, hand guns and firewalls: so much for the commons.

    A strange thought I had while listening to the show was just how lucky I am to worry about digital privacy in comparison to some Iraqi people who can do nothing to protect their own private homes from foreign army intrusion.

  • The recent Le Show’s “Dick Cheney: Confidential” has a few jokes related to this theme. Worth a listen if you like sarcastic humor:

  • Oh how the virtuous have fallen. Google to comply with China’s restrictive speech codes. Hmm. I guess Google going up against Uncle Sam doesn’t look so noble.

  • A little yellow bird

    “fconte”: What else can they do? Please see “The Google Conundrum”: