Kathryn Hanson, a former telecommunications engineer who lives in Oakland, Calif., was looking at BBC News online last week when she came across an item about a British politician who had resigned over a reported affair with a “rent boy.”
It was the first time Ms. Hanson had seen the term, so, in search of a definition, she typed it into Google. As Ms. Hanson scrolled through the results, she saw that several of the sites were available only to people over 18. She suddenly had a frightening thought. Would Google have to inform the government that she was looking for a rent boy - a young male prostitute?
Ms. Hanson, 45, immediately told her boyfriend what she had done. “I told him I’d Googled ‘rent boy,’ just in case I got whisked off to some Navy prison in the dead of night,” she said.
[...] The government and the cooperating companies say the search queries cannot be traced to their source, and therefore no personal information about users is being given up. But the government’s move is one of several recent episodes that have caused some people to think twice about the information they type into a search engine, or the opinions they express in an e-mail message.
The government has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to obtain data on Internet activity, invoking the fight against terrorism and the prosecution of online crime. A surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted certain international phone calls and e-mail in the United States without court-approved warrants prompted an outcry among civil libertarians. And under the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons’ Internet use.
Those actions have put some Internet users on edge, as they confront the complications and contradictions of online life.
[...] Privacy is an elusive concept, and when it comes to what is considered acceptable, people tend to draw the line at different points on the privacy spectrum.
Ming-Wai Farrell, 25, who works for a legal industry trade association in Washington, is one of those who draw the line somewhere in the middle. They are willing to part with personal information as long as they get something in return - the convenience of online banking, for example, or useful information from a search engine - and as long as they know what is to be done with the information.
Yet these same people are sometimes appalled when they learn of wholesale data gathering. Ms. Farrell said she would not be able to live without online banking, electronic bill paying or Google, but she would consider revising her Web activity if she had to question every search term, online donation or purchase.
“It’s scary to think that it may just be a matter of time before Googling will invite an F.B.I. agent to tap your phone or interrogate you,” Ms. Farrell said.