Show Me The Data! Cant

    January 31, 2006

Boing Boing, Battelle, Philipp and I’m sure many others are asking that Microsoft and any others who gave up search data to the U.S. Department of Justice release it publicly, if it is so harmless.

Actually, we asked Microsoft the same thing last week at Search Champs.

One thing I liked was that Microsoft understood that the DOJ situation was on everyone’s minds, and thus altered the schedule to add a session discussing the situation. We got to quiz lawyers and product managers, and understand the situation better, even if I think a lot of people didn’t agree with Microsoft in the end.

Others have written much about this, but here are the main points: First, the Department of Justice asked Microsoft for what they call PII, Personally Identifiable Information. Microsoft refused, and said it would only give them what they did, a two column list containing a million random search queries in one column, and the frequency of those queries in the other. There was no PII, because the list was too simple and limited for that.

Second, we asked Microsoft to show us the data. I asked multiple times, in fact, and it was asked by several people during the DOJ session. As we were informed, Microsoft cannot give us the list, because DOJ has locked the data as part of its ongoing an investigation, a revelation that surprised and explained a lot for several people. Microsoft also informed us of something else that I’m afraid I can not divulge, but will eventually make this entire situation a moot and meaningless one.

Microsoft told us that they gave this information to DOJ because it contained no PII and it would be more important to fight a demand for PII. I disagree, arguing that now that the DOJ has a list of search queries that may have on it an entry that indicates someone searched for “bomb making instructions”, it can easily subpoena the IP addresses behind that search, whereas before it had that information a blanket subpoena would have been easier to fight.

The best part of all the discussions at Search Champs was that there were plenty of brilliant minds there, with plenty of brilliant opinions. I’m glad I got to hear so many of them.

Nathan Weinberg writes the popular InsideGoogle blog, offering the latest news and insights about Google and search engines.

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