Government Sticks Its Fingers Deeper into Your Data Pie

News Analysis: Between the imminently possible renewal of the Patriot Act and the government's squeeze on Google for data, businesses are facing a few questions: Just how much reach does the government have into your database, and how onerous is th

Its an intense time for skirmishes between government and corporate America.

The Senate will take up the question of renewing the Patriot Act during the week of Jan. 30, and Google is fighting tooth and nail to keep search terms and search results out of the hands of the government.

For the private sector, the governments desire to fiddle with data raises a few questions: Just how much control does the government have over grabbing your data, and how onerous is that for business?

Regarding their effect on enterprises, the Patriot Act and the governments squeeze on Google are two different beasts.

According to Orin Kerr, an associate professor of law at the George Washington Law School who worked on legislation that eventually became the Patriot Act, the difference lies in the fact that the Patriot Act tweaked pre-existing laws—the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Conversely, the governments move on search companies doesnt implicate pre-existing law, since its a simple subpoena.

The distinction isnt making business leaders relax, though—rather, theyre tensing up as governments requests for information grow ever more obtrusive.

"Some of the stuff thats been of greatest concern to businesses with the Patriot Act request has been the increasing likelihood that the information requested would be open-ended and increasingly onerous," said Susan Hackett, senior vice president and general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, in an interview with eWEEK.

Googles skirmish with the government hasnt directly affected enterprises, beyond a general sense of unease that the government wont stop with anonymous search data but will instead gain insight into what should be private research.

For example: Dr. M. Lewis Temares, vice president of IT for the University of Miami, noted that on a corporate level, hes been led to believe that the nature of his searches wont spill out into public or government discourse, given that there are things he searches for that could potentially reveal trade secrets.

"Im [hypothetically] negotiating with Bell South with regards to their practices in terms of a future contract," Temares said.

"I use the search engine to find out what competitors are doing. All of a sudden Ive got people saying personal things about their experiences, their cellular experiences, that maybe they dont want to be made public.

"The government can see weve talked about various things in regards to competitiveness," Temares said.

"That may affect on a corporate basis everything you can say with regards to private conversations. Maybe the Federal Trade Commission [would get involved], maybe somebody said something about the governments interference. Maybe government takes it to another level: If hes saying something about the government…"

The search results and terms turned over by search companies thus far have reportedly been stripped of anything that would allow them to be traced back to users, as per government agreement.

The obtrusiveness of government if it succeeds in its Google subpoena is at this point hypothetical.

The effects of the Patriot Act are not. They are hard to gauge, though, given that the Patriot Act inflicted a gag order on those it hit up for information.

"Its difficult to get a good sense of what theyve been asked for, because theyre under a gag order," Hackett said.

"But with conversations with folks whove shared general thoughts on this, theyve drawn a distinction between requests for Mr. Smiths transactions with you from March 20 to June 30 of this year. Thats reasonably defined, easy to find in your systems."

Contrast that with what increasingly concerns businesses, though, Hackett said: namely, the government coming to a corporation and requesting a large and nebulous cloud of information—requesting, say, all information on customers and transactions done in hotspot Middle Eastern countries.

"These huge, open-ended, [You] dont know what [were] investigating but were putting you in charge of giving us information that we dont know if you have investigations" are what worry businesses about the governments Google move, she said.

Next Page: Governments slippery slope.