There was a very interesting chap on this morning’s “Start the Week” on Radio 4. He pointed out that, according to the US Patriot Act, government agencies can access information on third part servers (e.g. Google, in his pitch) without either requiring the consent of the information source, or even having to disclose that such access is taking place. This is fascinating and curious (to say the least) given the amount of previously private traffic that therefore become agency-accessible. For example – standard voice calls need a warrant; from this definition, voice over IP (Skype, etc) does not.
OK, Skype is peer to peer, and I don’t know whether the definition of “third party server” covers caches and other hardware mechanisms for getting information around the Web, so there should (and no doubt will) be a debate on this; meanwhile, I was wondering when people would start to consider duping the system. For example, if some agency is curious about my particular search requests (unlikely, admittedly) and it I was in the slightest worried about this (even less likely), I would start seaching for random items just to confuse the system. Given the availability of API’s to Google etc, I might even write a script to search for random sequences of dictionary entries, and run it as a screensaver – my own search entries would be lost in the noise.
Of course, if everyone started doing this, it would be a disaster for Google and other search providers, who are far more interested in the commercial potential of their search data. There are a billion searches a day apparently, offering huge opportunities for the companies collecting it – and no doubt, for the agencies that plug into them. In protecting against the latter, great damage would be done to the former.
At the end of the day however, would the end users care? Would they care enough to protect themselves, and would they care about any damage caused by such protection? Probably not – to either. This example of what might happen is just one of many potential future end user behaviours, the majority of which won’t happen. The point instead is that all the highest aspirations of either Google or the US government are ultimately hostage to the vagaries of the technology consumer.