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Google eyes (continued)

And it’s getting worse, all in the name of more service and greater convenience. Late last year, Google announced a new project to digitize millions of books at academic and public libraries, including 40,000 volumes at Harvard. Older books whose copyright protections have expired will be available in their entirety; newer books will offer some highlights so you can see whether they’re what you’re looking for. How great is that? Yet, soon, the books you read can be added to the personal data about you that will be available online. Take out a Google Gmail account or use Google to browse Usenet groups, and you’ll become a registered member of Google — making it that much easier to tie you to your online activities. Amazon is rolling out a service called A9.com that takes customized search to another level — but only if you register. For that matter, what about those discount cards you carry for the grocery store and the pharmacy? Sure, you save money. But there’s another kind of cost: your every purchase is tracked.

In such a world, the notorious Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act almost seems obsolete — or, maybe, supercharged by initiatives being undertaken by private industry. Section 215, as you may recall, allows government agents investigating terrorism to conduct secret searches of records from libraries, bookstores, doctors’ offices, and the like with minimal judicial oversight. It won’t be too long before Google and Amazon will have amassed exactly what the feds are looking for. And if there is another major terrorist attack, you can be sure that investigators will want to know who’s been reading what books online — information that would be impossible to obtain, obviously, if it involved cash-paying customers in the non-virtual world. Now, granted, if there were, say, a ricin attack in the Washington subway system, it would be hard to argue that government agents should not have access to any records that might help them find the perpetrators. The point is that ever-improving technology is making such clashes between public safety and civil liberties all the more likely to take place.

Ari Schwartz is associate director of the Washington-based Center for Technology and Democracy, which advocates for a whole range of privacy protections. For example: under current law, Web-based e-mail services such as Gmail or Microsoft’s Hotmail, which store your mail on a remote server, are less protected from the prying eyes of the government than e-mail that you download to your own computer, as is generally the case if you’re using a program such as Microsoft Outlook, Entourage, or Eudora. Schwartz’s organization wants to eliminate those anomalies. But what’s essential, Schwartz says, is for Congress to take a more comprehensive approach to privacy. "At some point," he says, "we need to create something that’s more general so that we don’t have to write a new privacy law for every new technology that comes along."

How likely is that to happen in an era dominated by Republicans? Despite the party’s pro-business leanings, Schwartz is reasonably optimistic. For instance, the new chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who, along with Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, is a co-chair of the Congressional Privacy Caucus. Barton’s predecessor on Energy and Commerce, former congressman Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, was hostile to privacy concerns, in Schwartz’s view. And Schwartz believes that Barton’s counterpart on the Senate side, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, could prove to be a friend of privacy as well.

Markey shares Schwartz’s optimism, saying that polls show more than 80 percent of Americans are concerned about privacy, a finding that crosses partisan lines. He points to past accomplishments, such as an amendment to the Child Online Protection Act that prohibits the use of information gathered from children for marketing purposes, as a sign that Republicans and Democrats may be able to work together. Markey’s goal: legislation that would mandate greater disclosure of data-collection efforts, as well as the right to opt out. As for Google and companies with similar practices, Markey would like to see a law mandating that personal information be destroyed after a certain length of time, as is already the case with cable companies.

"I think there is a chance this year," Markey told me. "The more people learn about any potential privacy invasion, the greater the likelihood that Congress, as a stimulus-response organism, will do something about it."

Still, it would be wise not to hold your breath. Business interests, Markey says, do not want these protections. And neither the White House nor Republican congressional leaders are likely to stand up to them.

POKE AROUND Google, and you’ll run into an endless list of superlatives. As of this past Monday, the service boasted that it was searching 8,058,044,651 Web pages. There are encomiums to its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who thought up the math behind Google as Stanford graduate students in the mid 1990s. There is information for investors — a reminder that, last year, Google’s IPO was the biggest Internet stock-market sensation since the dot-com crash of a few years ago. Last Friday, Google’s stock closed at $199.97 — quite a leap from its $100 opening in August.

Google, like the Internet, has made our lives easier and arguably better. For many of us, it’s impossible to imagine having to return to a time when we couldn’t find almost any piece of information instantaneously. But we’re paying a price for that. We’re paying with our privacy, our identity. For someone determined to look, there are no secrets anymore.

Sometime late tonight, someone, somewhere, will visit Google or Yahoo! or MSN or whatever and start searching for something he hopes no one will ever find out about. But he is being watched. Not by humans. Not in such a way that his search can be automatically traced back to him. Still, it’s all being recorded, and the pieces are there, so that someday, someone with the necessary incentive, skill, and legal authority can put them all together and figure out who this person is. Perhaps a life will be saved. Perhaps a life will be ruined — tragically, unnecessarily. But that’s the nature of the new world in which we live.

It’s a chilling reality.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: January 21 - 27, 2005
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