More On Search, Privacy and Digital Surveillance

Your Life as an Open Book

So, as one privacy group has asserted, is AOL’s blunder likely to be the search industry’s “Data Valdez,” like the 1989 Exxon oil spill that became the rallying cry for the environmental movement?

Maybe. But in an era when powerful commercial and legal forces ally in favor of holding on to data, and where the surrender of one’s digital soul happens almost imperceptibly, change is not likely to come swiftly.

Most of the major search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN collect and store information on what terms are searched, when they were queried and what computer and browser was used. And to the extent that the information can be used to match historic search behavior emanating from a specific computer, it is a hot commodity.

As it stands now, little with regard to search queries is private. No laws clearly place search requests off-limits to advertisers, law enforcement agencies or academic researchers, beyond the terms that companies set themselves.

[…] “I am very skeptical of any claims that the monetary worth of this information to these companies is worth the privacy trade-off to millions of people,” [the EFF’s Ken] Bankston said.

That is not to say that marketers are not keenly interested in being able to push ads to a particular computer based on the types of searches coming from that address over time. For users who register as members with some search engines, including Yahoo, this is already happening — although consumers are unlikely to realize it.

Which is why privacy advocates question whether such advertising models are appropriate in the first place.

“In many contexts, consumers already have the expectation that information about their cultural consumption will not be sold,” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle, a senior researcher at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. “They understand that the library items that they check out, the specific television shows that they watch, the videos that they rent are protected information.”

Related: How to Digitally Hide (Somewhat) in Plain Sight; also You Are What You Search

Later: EFF’s Action Site: AOL’s Massiva Data Leak