The European Parliament has adopted a proposal to collect citizens’ private search queries and store them for up to two years, framing the controversial plan as a measure to crack down on pedophiles.
Under Written Declaration 29, law-enforcement authorities may store all search-engine queries for possible analysis.
Critics are warning that Written Declaration 29 will undermine the privacy of more than 500 million law-abiding EU citizens.
Alex Hanff of Privacy International, an advocacy group that is launching a campaign against the measure, said the broad measure would allow government access to political, medical, professional and personal data on virtually every person in Europe rather than restricting the surveillance to suspected offenders.
“Sex offenders exchange files through underground networks. They don’t find this stuff through search engines,” Hanff said in a press release. “I spent eight years helping law enforcement track down online sex offenders, and never once did we see a case where search-engine data was useful.”
Administrators of Ixquick, a private search engine that deletes user information, have joined Privacy International in opposition to Written Declaration 29. They want to prevent it from becoming law.
“Privacy is a fundamental right and the basis of a free society. The phenomenal success of Ixquick and Startpage proves that people don’t want to be watched by their governments,” said Ixquick CEO Robert Beens. “Spying on law-abiding citizens is not the way forward, and we will stand by our principles to protect the public’s ability to search in privacy.”
Beens said he believes the measure unfairly targets private search engines like Ixquick.
“Since Google, Yahoo and Bing already retain users’ search data, this proposal is clearly aimed at Ixquick and our English-language subsidiary Startpage,” he said. “We have worked hard to create a privacy-friendly search engine that embodies the spirit of EU Privacy Protections, in line with the strict recommendations of the EU Article 29 Data Protection Working Party. This declaration is evidence that the left hand of the EU does not know what the right hand is doing.”
As WND reported, Katherine Albrecht, radio talk-show host and spokeswoman for Startpage, the American version of Ixquick, warned, “It would blow people’s minds if they knew how much information the big search engines have on the public. In fact, their dossiers are so detailed they would probably be the envy of the KGB.”
It happens every day, Albrecht explained. When an unfamiliar topic crosses people’s minds, they often go straight to Google, Yahoo or Bing and enter key terms into those search engines. Every day, more than a billion searches for information are performed on Google alone.
“If you get a rash between your toes, you go into Google,” she said. “If you have a miscarriage, you go into Google. If you are having marital difficulties, you look for a counselor on Google. If you lose your job, you look for unemployment-benefit information on Google.”
Albrecht said Internet surfers unwittingly share their most private thoughts with search engines, serving up snippets of deeply personal information about their lives, habits, troubles, health concerns, preferences and political leanings.
“We’re essentially telling them our entire life stories – stuff you wouldn’t even tell your mother – because you are in a private room with a computer,” she said. “We tend to think of that as a completely private circumstance. But the reality is that they make a record of every single search you do.”
The search engines have sophisticated algorithms to mine data from searches and create very detailed profiles about users. She said those profiles are stored on servers and could fall into the wrong hands.
Albrecht said the government may also subpoena citizens’ private information after it has been stored by Google, Yahoo and Bing. In a December 2009 interview with CNBC, Google CEO Eric Schmidt divulged that search engines may turn over citizens’ private information to the U.S. government.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Schmidt said. “But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And it’s important, for example, that we are all subject to the United States Patriot Act. It is possible that information could be made available to the authorities.”
“My jaw hit the floor when I heard that,” Albrecht said. “Now they are just coming right out and telling us that they will turn our data over to the feds. Based on what I know about how much information they have on us, it’s really terrifying.”
Startpage and Ixquick visit the selected website, retrieve the information and show it to users in a privacy-protected window. A private user’s browser never interacts directly with the external website so the websites cannot capture or record personal data or load malware onto a private computer. The search engines never record personal information, search data or IP addresses.
Tiziano Motti, Italian member of the European Parliament and author of Written Declaration 29, issued an “important clarification” to all members of the European Parliament stating that the goal of the measure is to seek out Internet users who upload content, images and videos portraying abuse of children.
“There is no intention to extend this directive to the same search engines for Internet users looking for any other kind of topic,” he wrote.
However, Stuart Corner of ExchangeDaily, a telecommunications news publication, wrote, “Well that’s as clear as mud! So we can rest assured that, even though all our search records will be retained the powers that be will only ever go sniffing through them in search of child-porn-related searches? Or is it supposed to mean something else?”
He added, “I’m not sure which is more appalling: the idea of this Big Brother surveillance, or the EU’s ineptitude in communicating its intentions!”
While a declaration is not a legal document, it is a statement of the parliament’s formal opinion, and the European Commission may act upon it. More than 100 organizations from 23 European countries have urged for the repeal of the EU requirements for data retention in favor of more targeted collection of traffic data.
Florian Altherr of the Working Group wrote, “According to a German survey, about 70 percent of citizens are opposed to a recording of their contacts and location in the absence of any suspicion. They want to be sure their private and business contacts to marital-crisis lines, lawyers, journalists and others cannot fall into the wrong hands or erroneously make them a suspect in the eyes of law-enforcement authorities.”