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MSN Search, the government, and your privacy

by Brandon on January 22nd, 2006

Last Friday, Ken Moss posted an entry to the MSN Search Blog where he jumped into the discussion about Google’s refusal to hand over subpeoned data to the DOJ.  The controversy has sprung up largely because of reports that competing search engines like MSN, Yahoo, and AOL have already complied (to varying extents) with the order.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from Ken’s entry:

Let me start with this core principle statement: privacy of our customers is non-negotiable and something worth fighting to protect.

Now, on to the specifics.   

Over the summer we were subpoenaed by the DOJ regarding a lawsuit.  The subpoena requested that we produce data from our search service. We worked hard to scope the request to something that would be consistent with this principle.  The applicable parties to the case received this data, and  the parties agreed that the information specific to this case would remain confidential.  Specifically, we produced a random sample of pages from our index and some aggregated query logs that listed queries and how often they occurred.  Absolutely no personal data was involved.

It seems to me that two types of information were revealed.  The first being a selection of pages from the index – which as far as I can tell is available publicly to anyone by going here.  The second is a collection of statistics.  My understanding is that aggregated query logs that listed queries and how often they occurred actually means something like – In December of 2005 – 400,000 people queried for the word “porn.”  (That number is a fictional example and nothing more)

Still, the comments to Ken’s post give the distinct impression that some readers are not satisfied.  I’ve boiled down the complaints to 3 issues:

1)  What queries did the DOJ receive statistics for?  Could some of those queries have contained personal data (like a query for “John Doe 123 Evergreen Lane”)?

2)  What happens if the DOJ comes back and subpoenas for personal information – such as a list of IP addresses that conducted certain queries?  Or a list of how many times certain combinations of queries originated from the same user?

3)  Why did MSN not inform users about the DOJ request and what information was being handed over at the time that it happened?

I wish I could say I had answers for you, but at this time I don’t.  However, it is my hope that Ken or someone else from MSN will address these issues to the satisfaction of MSN’s users.

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2 Comments
  1. Very Very nice information here… Thanks

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