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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Be Careful Who You Google

[Please note: this post contains explicit language.]

- Somebody recently came onto this site via the following Google search: “free pics of a fucking 4yo girl.” How could that happen? Pretty easy, really. The searcher was returned a link to my June archives, and during that month I mentioned a horse named Athena Girl; referred to several horses as being 4yo; and commented glibly that there were times that I wanted to fucking shoot Frank Drucker, the host of Yonkers Raceway’s simulcast, when that half-mile harness track’s morose parade of wire-to-wire favorites would pre-empt races on the NYC OTB channel from tracks like Santa Anita at 7:30 PM sharp. So it doesn’t take much, even without the profanity. If, for example, in the course of the same month, I wrote that a trainer’s two-year olds acted like little kids, and elsewhere about a speed horse that liked to blow his leads, I’d end up on the results page of a lot of unsavory searches (and I guess now I will).

This is all particularly relevant in light of Google’s refusal to comply with a subpoena from the Justice Department that seeks to compel the search engine giant to turn over records of the text of millions of search queries in an attempt to defend the constitutionality of a law intended to curb child pornography on the Internet by showing that filtering techniques are inadequate. Yahoo and Microsoft have agreed to supply the information, but claim that they have supplied no information as to what the searchers’ IP addresses were; thus the queries are anonymous and presumably could not be traced back to the searcher. But, as columnist Robert Scheer of the SF Chronicle asks,

Does anybody think they won't cooperate if the government comes back and asks for IP addresses -- your computer's unique signature on the Web -- for everybody who dared type in questionable searches such as "growing marijuana" and "fertilizer bombs?''
But while the searchers may be anonymous, the results returned are not, and while this blog is freely available to all, the idea of someone from the Justice Department perusing it in the context of an investigation into child pornography is disturbing, even though they won’t find anything more offensive than bad horse picks and the occasional sentence (or 12) that runs-on longer than the State of the Union address. (Though I suppose that if Frank Drucker ever did get bumped off, I’d have the FBI knocking at the door.)

Also, I’ve at times harshly criticized the Bush Administration, and I carry links to lefty political sites that, though I selected them discriminatingly with good taste in mind and generally agree with their drift, sometimes espouse views more radical than my own. With a White House that makes no bones about its right to snoop on phone calls and emails, insists on provisions of the Patriot Act that are so intrusive that they haven’t even been able to get a permanent extension of them through the GOP-controlled Congress, and whose former press secretary once warned that Americans need to watch what they say, I start to wonder if I need to do exactly that.

But this post is not about my privacy; it’s about yours. Google and the other search engines claim that your IP address is kept confidential. Some have questioned their need to store that information at all (they claim it helps them improve and maintain the quality of their search results), and many people apparently aren’t even aware that Google stores their personal information for years. Ken Moss, the GM of MSN Web Search told Forbes Magazine: "Privacy of our customers is non-negotiable and something worth fighting to protect.”

However, despite these claims, that is not entirely true. There are some who can see some peoples’ searches, along with their IP addresses and other information. And who would that be?

Me. As well as any other of the many bloggers and website owners who utilize one of the widely available and free web counters that reveal a lot more than just how many hits a website has received. When I first started Left at the Gate, I used a simple counter, and proudly proclaimed on the site that the counter did not collect any personal information. However, I soon succumbed to temptation and switched to a more sophisticated tool. The fact is that it’s a real kick to see where my readers are clicking on from, and to see them come from all over the country and even the world. It’s cool to see people spending an hour or more on the site, and to see what sites and links people have used to come to me (and to see many that just come in on their own), sometimes finding favorable comments in a chat room or on another blog, and being able to reciprocate the favor if applicable.

I’ve never felt quite comfortable though, with being supplied (for the last 100 hits only, which I’m happy to say comes fairly quickly these days) with more detailed information as well, such as IP addresses, which are not always just numbers – they can contain the name of one’s place of work. That would allow me, if I wanted, to track specific readers and see if they’ve visited today, or gee, perhaps the guy who works at Citibank in Tampa is on vacation because I haven’t seen him in a week. There’s also trivial but personal information such as the kind of browser and operating system used for each visitor, and even the resolution of the computer used.

And for anyone who comes on via a Google, Yahoo, AOL, or MSN search, I can see the exact search terms used and a link to the results page, along with all the other information detailed above. I’ve justified all of this with the usual “well, everybody does it” and with the knowledge that I would never abuse this information, and certainly would never use it to single anyone out, as I saw one blogger do in response to a critical commenter:
Well anonymous (in Vancouver, B.C., on Shaw Cable who googled 'james mirtle' to find my site), as a frequent visitor to my site (27 times), you'll know I said in that other thread…
That was just downright creepy, and I don’t know about anonymous in Vancouver, but it made me not want to visit this guy’s site much anymore. I’m sure he could tell you that he hasn’t seen much of late from anonymous in Rego Park, NY on Earthlink Cable.

I was revolted when I first saw that someone came onto the blog with an apparent search for child pornography, and though that’s still the case, now I’m not really sure what’s worse: the search itself, or that fact that someone who conducted a search from what he/she thought was the privacy of their own computer can now see the exact text of it posted on the Web for all to see. Whatsmore, if I wanted to I could have also published the person’s IP address and place of residence - even their workplace if that had been available. After all, for all I know, the searcher could have been a law enforcement agent tracking down an offending website.

This is something to really think about – depending on what link you click on, your next Google search could conceivably end up on the Internet along with your computer's unique identifying information. Since I’ve already done the disclaimer thing, let me just say – That’s fucking whack!

One site that you will no longer have to worry about in that regard is this one. I’ve stripped out the detailed web counter – sigh – and replaced it with a simple one that returns only a hit count, which I’ll keep unless and until I can find one that gives me useful information like referring links and a geographical breakdown of readers without specific user identification. I think that any bloggers who are writing about their concern for privacy issues would be hypocritical if they don’t do the same.

- Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, or links.


Patrick J Patten said...

so now you know how infatuated people are by this site, and you know how many times i check it. i feel used. ;)

Anonymous said...

...WOW, this IS creepy...just take a look at my post from last night!...all in the same comment, i said that Point of Impact "blew" the turn, that he was "young", and i had bet on Touchdown "Kid"...put those three seperate words together, and UH-OH...i also mentioned that Point of Impact seems to have his head "up his ass"...i'll have to start choosing my words more carefully...sorry Alan...

thecalicocat said...

Hope I don't come across as a prude, but, really, I don't see the need for any cursewords at all on a blog. In journalism, we must abide by certain constraints and I don't think it makes us any less of a writer than someone who uses cursewords.
I used to play tennis with a Hungarian guy who said he could curse for 45 minutes straight without repeating himself. They probably have a more colorful language. We have about four all-purpose cursewords and none of them really add to the conversation.

t said...

Clearly, you're just a whore for the radical left, Alan [I did it!]....

But seriously, I must applaud you on the segue from your LATG counter to the Bush administration’s perpetual attack on our civil liberties, and I'm not being sarcastic here for a change. I think it's important that we talk about protecting our rights as Americans, not just in the context of political blogs or in salon like fashion at the local coffee shop, but reach out to folks that aren't in the coffee shop who probably feel the same way. Kudos, Alan.

Lastly, I agree that curse words are not required for good writing. They aren't required for good comedy, either. I still like a little blue in my content, though. Granted there is little data added to the conversation with curse words, but there is a texture. Just because I wouldn't want to see four-letter-words in the New York Times, doesn't mean I can't appreciate it in a Carlin routine or a Christopher Buckley essay, or even a Left at the Gate post.

Alan Mann said...

So, you're saying that this is no place for me to list Carlin's seven words you can't say on TV? That was obviously before cable. And I would guess that given our current depravity, at least one, and possibly two of those could probably pass muster even on broadcast TV these days.

thecalicocat said...

Dammit, I did come across as a prude.
Hey, all I can say is I gave my nephew the greatest advice on women and now he is the happiest married guy around. It all came out of personal experience.
I told him to find a cute nurse with a short, simple haircut who has her own apartment. Those are the key elements of romantic success if you're halfway presentable.

QQ said...

Alan, Though the new counter company provides you with only the basics, doesn't it still collect the same stuff? In other words, while you don't have access to it, doesn't the rather anonymous firm counting hits still have the ability to keep track of this stuff? And maybe even turn it over to the Dept of Justice sometime?

I got a counter for just that reason - so that I could see what kind of tracking is available to the average joe using any computer (including a workstation at a public library). Many folks just don't believe that anyone but the government can find anything personal about them - for free. These are often the folks who feel that if you aren't doing anything bad, why worry if your privacy is infringed. When I tell them, "you visited at my blog at 2:15," it brings the whole privacy issue a little closer to home. Without such proof, it just sounds like another conspiracy theory … and they ignore the warning. So, I’m thinking I'll keep my counter for its educational value; it's a constant reminder that sites can be tracking me.