By TOM ZELLER Jr. The New York Times
Privacy advocates and search industry watchers have long warned that the vast and valuable stores of data collected by search engine companies could be vulnerable to thieves, rogue employees, mishaps or even government subpoenas.
Four major search companies were served with government subpoenas for their search data last year, and now once again, privacy advocates can say, "We told you so."
AOL's misstep last week in briefly posting some 19 million Internet search queries made by more than 600,000 of its unwitting customers has reminded many Americans that their private searches - for solutions to debt or bunions or loneliness - are not entirely their own.
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.