By Robert Kuttner | December 3, 2005
THE NEW York Times recently reported that in a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence the fact that the defendant's Google searches had included the words 'neck' and 'snap.' The Times noted that the evidence had come from the defendant's home computer, but could just as easily have come from Google.
Google's whole business-model includes keeping track of users' searches by putting 'cookies' (tracking devices) on users' own computers, and then using the results to customize ad offerings that pop up when we use their ingenious free search service.
In the era of the misnamed USA Patriot Act, which allows warrantless police searches that are not even disclosed to the target, Google plus Dick Cheney is a recipe for undoing the liberties for which the original patriots of the American Revolution bled and died. Under the Patriot Act, anyone suspected of enabling terrorism can be subjected to these fishing expeditions. Depending on a prosecutor's whims, that includes all of us.
In the 18th-century era of star-chamber courts and despotic monarchs, the US Constitution put an end to government as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Unreasonable searches and seizures were explicitly prohibited by the Sixth Amendment. People (not just citizens) were guaranteed the right to confront their accusers and to know the charges against them. There were no 'national security' loopholes.
Google's internal slogan is, charmingly, "Don't be evil." Well, the interaction of cyber-snooping and the unreasonable searches authorized by the Patriot Act is pure evil.
Herewith an idea that I am putting into the public domain, which could make some computer-whiz a billionaire: One of Google's competitors could guarantee users of its search engines that all data keeping track of searches will be permanently discarded after 24 hours. The search process could still learn a broad pattern of users' purchasing tastes, if we wish to be party to a bargain of being marketed to in exchange for the convenience of free searches.
The same libertarian computer entrepreneur could offer e-mail software, in which old messages are permanently erased unless the user deliberately opts to retain them.
Google, like Microsoft and IBM before it, may be the current market leader in whiz-bang technology based on sheer inventive genius. But if Google is not careful, some competitor with a genuine regard for privacy could displace it.