Packet Rat: Dirty laundry list

The Rat

Michael J. Bechetti

Don't look now, but everyone is watching

With a fresh message from Osama bin Laden in hand, a lobbying scandal on the Hill, and outrage brewing over National Security Agency monitoring of domestic phone calls, the Justice Department has once again ratcheted up its war efforts'against porn.

And this time, attorney general Alberto Gonzales and his crack band of G-Men have everyone in America checking their browser history. For background in a child online protection lawsuit, the Justice Department requested information on Internet searches from Google Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Yahoo Inc. Apparently, the subpoena was issued last summer, but it only came to light recently because Google chose to fight the request.

'It's good to see we're using all those Homeland Security investments in cyberforensics to keep America safe from the real threat,' the Rat sneered as he checked his Firefox cache for anything that might be construed as mildly erotic.

Ironically, news of Justice's probe came just as many government people were probably Googling all the words Justice was looking for to research another news story that week'the arrest of a former University of Maryland Baltimore County professor for operating a prostitution business from her home. The ex-professor'who once did research under a grant from NIH and was later accused of falsifying data'allegedly advertised her services on the Web as 'Alexis,' complete with photos that would have put wear and tear on Vice President Cheney's pacemaker.

Considering all the coin Google wrings out of how well it watches what its users search for (and read in their e-mail), it's no surprise that the search giant would resist handing over even anonymized snippets of user searches.

Ken Moss, general manager of Microsoft's MSN Search team, said the data MSN handed over was totally scrubbed of information that could connect any user to a search. 'Absolutely no personal data was involved,' said Moss on the MSN Search weblog. 'With this data you CAN see how frequently some query terms occurred. (You) CANNOT look up an IP and see what they queried.'

Still, the fact that Microsoft and Yahoo both consented without public comment to the requests has many in the cyberprivacy world up in arms. And with the NSA monitoring bombshell still on people's minds, some are questioning whether anything anyone does online is really 'private' anymore.

Blogger Phillip Lenssen has some ideas about that. He set up a new search engine on his Patriot Search site (blog.outer-court.com/patriot/) that carries the subhead, 'Help the government by making your search activity public.' Especially interesting is the engine's search syntax:

'By typing terrorist:true preceding any search query, you tell us and the governments of the world that you are in fact a terrorist, or involved in terrorist activity, or planning to get involved in such activity, or that you once met a terrorist (or you met someone who met a terrorist). If you are no terrorist, you can type terrorist:false. Please note that true is the default value if you omit the terrorist operator'after all, everyone is a potential terrorist.'

'Fortunately, I don't have to worry about that,' the cyberrodent sighed in satisfaction. 'I know all my searches are being monitored.'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@postnewsweektech.com.

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