Friday, January 20, 2006

US DoJ sues Google to get access to its data

This was inevitable. Google is being sued by the US Deparment of Justice, no less because Google refused to turn over 1 week's worth of queries and the million email addresses requested of them. The reason DoJ wants this is so they can monitor sexually explicit content and material on the Internet and possibly take preventative measures. The fact that they want to "monitor", alone is enough to raise an uproar among privacy advocates. Some time back I wrote an article for Spider on Google, in which this was posed as one of the biggest risk factors to Google's integrity. There have been mixed results with ISPs facing similar issues. Many turn over the user logs and IPs to the authorities while others refuse to do so and take shelter under the privacy umberella.

Google justifies business models like scanning your email and showing ads relevant to it by arguing that your email is being scanned by bots, not humans and as such there is no malevolence (a socio-philosphical debate can ensue here). This, however, becomes a problem when the database administrators and developers have access to the databases and user accounts which creates a vector for security breach. It also becomes a problem when a court-ordered subpeona is issued.

A centralized portal managing all your data is becoming a growing concern and runs counter to the decentralized philosophy of the web. Google for example has your search history, emails, pictures, videos, IM conversations, buddy lists, web surfing (if you use Google Proxy), credit card and/or bank account information (if you signed up for Google ads) and a bunch of other stuff. It's not only Google but MSN, Yahoo and other major internet players as well who offer single sign-on services that are susceptible to such subpeonas. If Google complies to the demands of DoJ or loses the case, it will be a big blow to them as well as the privacy rights of users all over.

It's a good thing Google is standing up but it's a multi-faceted issue. Under US laws, the DoJ very well might have the right to access the data in interest of national security (to investigate or disrupt a terrorist plot) or in interest of social welfare as it is doing right now (slamming down on sexually explicit content).

Further, by resisting the demands of DoJ, Google is in a way saying that they won't help the DoJ with is anti-porn efforts. At the same time it's trying to protect it's users. Whether or not the DoJ should have the authority to invade the privacy of users for whatever reason and get access to Google's data will set the precedent for future cases (if it happens today, it won't stop hereafter).

While on the issue of privacy, here's a funny/scary ad. It's closer to reality than you might think.


Abbas Halai said...

let's see how long their "don't be evil" attitude holds up.

Fahd Mirza said...

They havent left much room for privacy, as depicted by the ad.

AleemB said...

Yusuf Mehdi, VP of MSN division made this clarification today in a meeting with the MSN employees (meeting had broader agenda--this was a small part of it):

1. MSN cooperated with the DoJ because we want to help the cause of fighting child porn. If 13 year olds are searching for porn and society wants to know, we'll do our part and share this information.

2. No PII (Personally Identifiable Information) was revealed. All we gave away was a random sample of a million URLs and search queries. It does not say who searched for this data. This kind of information is what researchers might ask of us and we'd happily provide it. Google Zeitgest has some info along these lines on the web.

3. If Google is reluctant to give out data, maybe they have something to hide. This kind of data is non-critical and there's really no reason to fight the issue.

4. Media put a spin on the issue and we could've done better PR on this to clarify the issue as to what was really involved (no personal data revealed and absolutely no user rights violated).

self said...

3. If Google is reluctant to give out data, maybe they have something to hide. This kind of data is non-critical and there's really no reason to fight the issue.

Wow, blatant FUD.

AleemB said...

Possibly. This much is true that they do have something to hide, whether it is due to privacy issues or due to protecting company secrets:


“Competition with Google is fierce,” said Google’s report. It says it takes extraordinary measures to protect its trade secrets and confidential commercial information and that the government is compelling it to disclose “valuable trade secrets and highly confidential information”.

The complete filing:

If it was a competitive issue, they could have filtered the data and provided a report with only the neccessary data. The data is confidential and sensitive, no doubt.

The company in question here is Google (a company people love to love) and that creates a bias. You should not forget that Google != Sergey/Page anymore. It's public and as it grows it will face the same issues all corporations face in corporate America. You really don't want your ISP to track all your information do you? Probably not. But if its Google that's OK? They can't do no wrong but they still want to index your entire file system on their servers (the alibi? So your network is searchable; So why not keep a local index?)

Don't think Google, think privacy. I can trust my mom with some information because I trust her. I can trust some friends with my private information. But I will not trust a public company that wants to index my emails, entire file syste, search, search history, online business income and traffic info through ad sense, orkut social network and so on. Google knows more about you than you do yourself (they know what you were interested in a month ago and what medical ailments troubled you had you chosen Google to research them). What if they have mood algorithms to determine mood from user behavioral analysis? What if they assess your social network and income information through your searches? Their business relies solely on targetting better ads through better customer intelligence and profiling. That's at their core.

Trust Larry and Sergey, but don't trust Google. They're an autonomous company governed by rules. A subpeona would mean that the law can uncover all this information on you. If they don't choose to comply with wallstreet and give quarterly earnings guidance doesn't mean that they aren't a public company. It doesn't mean that Sergey and Larry aren't cashing in their company stock on a monthly cycle. It doesn't mean that Google's employees aren't filled with hubris from their money (most are millionaires). Google is a company, a public company. Not a person.

Don't be naive. Whatever decision you make, make sure it's informed one.