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Monday, August 21, 2006


Be careful what you wish search for

Yesterday's San Jose Mercury News carried an article about a survey they had done of major online search firms, and their business practices. While the article is online, the results of the survey, summarized in a nice table, are not, so I'll reproduce them here:

Visitors in July106 million96 million94 million75 million
How long do you keep user information, including Internet searchesAs long as it is usefulSpecific time frames can vary greatly depending on the type of data and services involvedAs long as it is usefulPersonally identifiable search data is kept for 30 days. If it is held for more than 30 days it is anonymized by replacing the username and IP address with an anonymous identifier
Can users review their search data?Only if they save their searches using My Web or Yahoo ToolbarNo. Search queries are separated from personally identifiable information.Only if they sign up for personalized searchUsers can review, edit, and/or delete all of the searches that are linked to their personal account
Can users request that their data be permanently deleted?No, but they can delete their Yahoo account.No.No, but they can delete their personalized accountYes, users can delete searches that are less than 30 days old. However, a separate database of anonymized searches cannot be edited or deleted.

Time to switch to AOL?

Here's an example (a "good" one in this case) of what your Internet searches can be used for:

Local prosecutors say Internet companies are generally cooperative with criminal investigations, but they could not quantify the number of times any one company has been approached. They said investigators typically get search histories from log files on a suspect's computer.

That is where North Carolina investigators looked for information about Robert Petrick after his wife's decomposed body was found in Falls Lake. Prosecutors in Petrick's murder trial told jurors that he had searched Google for the words 'neck,' 'snap' and 'break.'

Four days before he reported his wife missing on Jan. 22, 2003, they said he also researched the level of the lake, water currents and boat ramps.

Petrick was found guilty largely on circumstantial evidence, including the Google searches.

In retrospect, Assistant District Attorney Mitchell Garrell said it might have been more efficient to ask Google directly for the information because investigators had spent months sifting through about nine gigabytes of data on Petrick's computers.
And, just to quantify the magnitude of the situation:
In sworn testimony to Congress in June, John Ryan, AOL's chief counsel, said AOL was receiving more than 14,000 subpoenas a year, not including search warrants or other orders related to suspected criminal behavior.

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