Why Do I Always Feel Like, Somebody's Watching Me ...

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After the recent brouhaha over the MSN/Yahoo/Google Department of Justice Search Inquiry, Danny Sullivan gives us a sobering look at how hard it really is to keep what you search for and do online truly private, Protecting Your Search Privacy: A Flowchart To Tracks You Leave Behind

As you can see, ensuring your search privacy is tricky. The information you send is leaving traces in multiple places. The solution to ensuring privacy isn't going to be as easy as passing a law that targets Google, Yahoo and the others. Ideally, the entire lifecycle of a search beyond the computer desktop needs to be considered from ISP through to tracking services. Searchers themselves also need to consider what they do on their own computer desktops.

There's also an issue of what should be private. I wrote earlier today that most people probably think the conversations they have with search engines as being private. But to date, we don't have any protected searcher-search engine relationship as we do with attorney-client privilege or between clergy and worshipper. Perhaps that needs to be enshrined in some way. But then again, others may feel that going out on to the public web and using publicly accessible search engines entitles no one to an expectation of privacy, or perhaps a more limited one.

Certainly, we need to have a good debate and discussion. That's probably the good that's coming out of the Department Of Justice action. After years of worrying about privacy issues, the DOJ action is turning that worry into action about better protections that may need to be put into place.

Apologies to anyone offended by my shamelessly stealing the title of Rockwell's 1980's one hit.


Danny does a great job

Danny does a great job of laying out the landscape. Once again I appreciate that he has the time and energy to write for the public.

If you read his post, and enjoyed Mr. Swift's blog post offering light-hearted explanations for his Google history, then you might just think of all of this as temporary help for the investigator and not some big conspiracy.

Suppose there is an investigation into a crime. The investigators start by looking for CLUES. The more clues, the better the investigators' chances of finding "their man". Of course the "scene of the crime" is the best place to look for clues, since fresh physical evidence can be the most convicting. After that? People... witnesses. Who saw what may provide MORE GOOD CLUES to investigate. Those "people clues" have to be collected FAST because people forget, distort, and bias reality (a.k.a. wintessed fact) in their minds, and over time.

What about the Internet? We have court rulings that a computer cannot be a witness against a human. BUT, we have a long history of computers providing information to support convincing arguments that are used to get people to indict and convict people based on a collection of evidence. That's the story here.

First, the data is desired as a source of clues to investigate (clues, not evidence).
Second, clues found will likely be used to convince humans to decide on the accused's fate (not be used as evidence of guilt).

Feel better now? Your search history will only be used for clues, and there will be a full follow up investigation where I suppose due process will ensure you will get ample time to explain any "unusual" observations or clear up any "mis-understandngs" before anything is taken as fact or "used against you".

Some Notable history:

"A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer." -Robert Frost

"However severe their effect and improper their use, drugs or alcohol voluntarily ingested by a juror seems no more an 'outside influence' than a virus, poorly prepared food or a lack of sleep." [US Appeals court judge ruling that drunk and cocaine-abusing jurors that convicted a man on trial comprised a valid jury]

"We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don't know anything and can't read." - Mark Twain

"lawyers are like nuclear weapons, you have yours, I have mine, and when we use them they %^%$ everything up"
-Danny DeVito in Other People's Money.

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