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Be Careful What You Surf For: Online Undercover Operations to Trap Child Predators Can also Catch the Innocent

February 22nd, 2006

By: Vince Imhoff, Attorney at Law

Mary is a graduate student in sociology writing a research paper about using the internet for romance. She uses a search engine to locate romance oriented chat rooms. She visits these chat rooms and observes the communication in them for hours at a time. She notices that in several chat rooms, some of the chatters appear to be much younger than the intended age. Other chatters seem interested in getting personal information about the under-aged chatters. Mary researches this topic as well, looking at several sites and news articles about Internet Child Predators and child exploitation on the web. Much to her surprise, government authorities arrive at her home with a search warrant to seize her computer and search her home for signs of involvement in child exploitation. They remove home videos, cameras, personal photos and videotapes, clothing, and other personal articles.

Could the above scenario actually happen? How can the government know what someone is looking at on the internet? Once I turn my computer off, how can anyone know whats on it? Is this something that really goes on?

How Are Internet Users Tracked?

When a user uses an internet search engine, the computers that perform the search keep a record of the users computers IP address and of the search terms used. This information is stored and analyzed by search companies in order to determine how to make searches more efficient. Popular items searched are copied by the search engines and kept in huge memory caches on site to further speed up searching. All of this information remains stored indefinitely.

Most of us think of an Internet search engine as a 21st century version of a public library. Rather than flipping through the card catalogue and browsing the shelves, we enter a few key words in a search engine and find useful resources and information almost instantly. We also tend to think of the Internet as offering us even greater privacy than the library. After all, if there are billions of people on line in a given day, even if the government could trace one computer users activity, how could they possibly notice me? The library keeps a record only of books we check out, not those we took to the reading room and re-shelved or left behind. The Internet search engine, on the other hand, keeps a record of every single search by every single computer.

Government Uses Search Records to Locate Criminal Suspects

The government is very interested in viewing search records, and believes these records could help locate criminal suspects who may otherwise be undetectable. In a recent news story, Google, the largest internet search engine provider, revealed that it is resisting efforts by the government to access records of billions of searches performed by its users. Googles legal papers in the matter and other investigative reports have asserted that other search portals and Internet providers have already complied with similar subpoenas.

The government believes the information could help it track many types of criminal terrorists, Internet child pornography distributors, child predators and molesters, and even drug traffickers. Using sophisticated programs to comb through the mountain of data, authorities may be able to isolate patterns of search behavior that could point to people who are involved in crime. Privacy advocates, Google itself, and other critics decry the governments efforts as a massive invasion of privacy of millions of law abiding Americans of whom the government has no suspicion at all. Many people simply find it distasteful that the government is gathering information on its citizens as a whole, without any suspicion at all.

Other opponents of the initiative fear that if the public believes that the government is potentially watching everything that they search on the internet, that people will be more reluctant to take advantage of commerce and entertainment opportunities, and the growth in these businesses will slow.

Negative Effects of Being Under a Government’s Watchful Eye

Could an innocent searcher really get caught under the governments watchful eye through innocent searching? It may be possible. What if many members of the family are all using the same computer? So far as the internet knows, all of the users have the same IP address and would be the same identity. Suppose a government agent looking for people trying to hide drug money uses the search data to locate people who searched for information on money laundering and tax shelters within a specified period. Suppose your child searches for information on drug trafficking and money laundering for a report for school on current events. Suppose you use the same computer that week to look up information on tax deductions to prepare your taxes? While this is a simplistic example, the government is certainly not revealing what key words it is interested in, or how its algorithms work.

The US Constitution protects American Citizens against self-incrimination and suspicion-less government searches of our homes. Many privacy advocates fear that these intrusions into private information and gathering of information about citizens is a dangerous precedent, equivalent to McCarthy era searches of public library records and other investigation of private behavior. Only time will tell if Google’s stand is able to protect computer user’s legitimate privacy interests or not.