Search Engines: Release DOJ Data

    January 30, 2006
    WebProNews Staff

After all, as Cory Doctorow et al at BoingBoing point out, if there is no personally identifiable information in the data, there is no reason to keep it from being posted for review.

The call from Doctorow at BoingBoing asks for transparency in the DOJ’s requests for information from AOL, MSN, and Yahoo. Doctorow responded to a message from EFF co-founder John Gilmore calling for that information to be released:

If Yahoo, MSN, and AOL didn’t reveal any personal info to DoJ, let’s see them publicly post the results that they sent back to the DoJ.

They sent “a generic list of aggregate and anonymous search terms, and not results, from a roughly one day period” (AOL)? Let’s see it. The public can decide whether there are privacy violations in there.

They sent “a random collection of page URLs that we had web-crawled”? Let’s see them.

Doctorow reiterated that request in the group post at his site:

So, America Online, Microsoft, and Yahoo: will you please release the data publicly — or show us where it already exists online? This way, everyone who uses your services can take a look for themselves, and evaluate whether they believe the information shared was privacy-violating.

MSN has tried addressing the problem online, to a lukewarm response from its users as we noted last week:

[MSN Search general manager Ken] Ross also stressed privacy was protected, a position MSN considered non-negotiable. He referred to the type of data disclosed to the Feds:

Specifically, we produced a random sample of pages from our index and some aggregated query logs that listed queries and how often they occurred. Absolutely no personal data was involved.

With this data you:

CAN see how frequently some query terms occurred.
CANNOT look up an IP and see what they queried
CANNOT look for users who queried for both "TERM A" and "TERM B".

Commenters mostly disputed Ross’s contention of privacy protection, calling it a “cop-out” and letting “the genie out of the bottle.” One commenter asked three questions of MSN that would be interesting to see answered: why didn’t Microsoft blog about this six months ago; why blog about it now; and what will Microsoft do in the future to safeguard user privacy.

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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.