Data Privacy Caught in Crossfire

Opinion: The Department of Justice's search subpoena sparks a debate over competing rights.

Whose data is it anyhow? The personal technology industry has been roiling of late with the news that Microsoft and Yahoo have agreed to provide some anonymous search data related to a Department of Justice subpoena, while Google is fighting the request.

The issue highlights an emerging debate that will affect business as well.

The earlier episode that presaged this issue was titled "The revenge of e-mail."

In that episode, corporate executives were surprised to learn that e-mails once thought to be private, and thought to be actually deleted when they were deleted, were neither private nor part of the digital netherworld.

If you wanted to read the Enron e-mails related to the unbounded greed in which the company wallowed, you could head over to

E-mail discovery was a part of the DOJs anti-monopoly trial against Microsoft and is now part of the proceedings of AMD versus Intel.

The retention time for e-mail is spelled out in many corporate policies and government regulations and is often put into the same camp as retention policies for paper documentation.

Regulations-induced spending—including for Sarbanes-Oxley financial disclosures, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)-related medical privacy measures and, increasingly, homeland defense requirements—has placed more demands on corporate IT budgets.

Now, a new requirement is developing: Are you ready to keep track of your companys search requests?

Google, which has wrapped itself in its corporate motto of "Dont be evil," is hurtling head-on into a world of government-driven information requests and courthouse hearings.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read more about Googles fight with the Department of Justice.

Where the government leads, corporate lawyers are sure to follow. I dont think Im overreacting on this.

Google has done an outstanding job of creating a search engine that is not only exhaustive but also long-lived.

Your search history lives on, beyond your control, whether you want it to live on or not.

And with the advent of Googles Gmail and Google Talk, your e-mail and VOIP (voice over IP) conversations also can live on endlessly.

And where data resides—especially data that is already parsed and discoverable—will draw the attention of investigators from the public and private sectors.

Connecting the data to real people is not all that difficult. I dont think Google included this prospect in its business plans.

When Ive talked with CIOs and technology managers about their upcoming storage and regulatory requirements, Ive often heard about the need to store all e-mail messaging as required by corporate policies.

Ive often heard about the need to build a plan to store and manage VOIP conversations, instant messaging and, eventually, video communications.

I dont recall any conversations about managing and storing search inquiries.

I also dont recall too many conversations about the issue of privacy as related to outside services such as Google, and other providers.

Who owns your data when your company uses a Web service? While you might own the data from a business point of view, what are the obligations of the Web services company when the government comes knocking? It is worth asking.

What should you, as a corporate technology manager, do about the situation?

You should realize that the current controversy with public search engines doesnt mean your company cannot be drawn into the debate.

Just as you had to understand your e-mail flow and document flow, you should be aware of how public search engines are being used within your company.

The current state of the government request for Google searches is narrow and designed to assure anonymity.

The governments goal of forcefully addressing the scourge of pornography is admirable.

The stance of Googles lawyers to question the governments right to request the information is a wise move to balance the governments right to know versus a citizens right to privacy.

The clash of those competing rights will continue to reverberate throughout not only the public forums, but also in your companys boardroom.

eWEEK magazine editor in chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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