Who Needs the Internet When You Have a Pencil and Paper?

by on April 21, 2005

A story linked from Drudge describes a new service that Google is offering: saved search history. Create a Google login, and the search service will keep track of all your searches, as well as the results that you’ve clicked-through to access. Anyone who has used Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis will find the idea familiar–those services have offered it for years.

Reaction, however, has not been uniformly positive. Once again the privacy wingnuts (so said to distinguish them from from people with legitimate concerns about privacy) are all worked up:

“It’s really a bad idea,” said Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. “If you need to keep track of your past searches, I recommend using a notebook. It would be a lot more private and a lot less risky.”

Had Google or any other operator of a web server some kind of malicious intent, it could keep track of every page you access on its servers and every search term you send to it. If you’ve ever sent them your email address or some other personally identifying information–then bingo, they’ve got you! For better or worse, this is the way that computer networks work, barring those that employ extremely complex, unreliable, and slow misdirection technologies. Dixon might as well caution users to stay away from the Web altogether, because the privacy implications are about the same as Google’s new service.

Still, she is right that some people don’t like like to divulge any information at all, ever, whether they’re using a computer network or boarding an airplane. At least in the case of Google, as opposed to boarding a flight, these people have options: they can choose not to use the search history service, not to use Google at all, or even not to use the Internet, period.

But the people who harbor such concerns are clearly on the fringe; the success of online services testifies to that. These are the sort of people who exclusively use anonymous proxies to access the Internet and send all their email encrypted. The really radical ones live “off the grid” altogether and pay for everything in cash. These are not normal computer users–who do take their privacy seriously but have proven more than willing to divulge certain bits of information when there is a payoff to doing so. All of us make that compromise every day when we access the Internet.

So Dixon is right that some people might want to think twice about Google’s search history service. Normal users, however, will probably make their decision based solely on whether it’s useful to them. And that’s the way it should be, that users get to choose what they’re willing to accept.

What this episode reinforces, though, is that privacy “advocates” like Dixon don’t really speak for normal users but for the paranoid. Whether their paranoia is legitimate–who’s to say? But the next time that privacy advocates come out calling for government controls on innovative technologies–a regular occurrence–remember that their concerns are likely far different from yours and those of most users.

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