Earlier this week, I watched an Oprah episode on "How Stuff Works". Yes, I admit it. It really got my attention. One of the subjects from the popular author of the book series was how email actually gets from computer to computer. During John Wiley's expert demonstration, he mentioned the thousands of subserver routers based in non-descript windowless concrete bunkers throughout the country. The subservers constantly look at Internet traffic and decide where the datastream zeros and ones need to go.
Oprah asked a series of key questions: "What happens to that data going through those servers? Does anyone ever look at it? Does it ever get deleted?" His answer: The data never gets completely deleted. You may delete the file, the person receiving the email may delete the file...but somewhere, in a routing server located someplace, that data will always remain.
Who owns those servers? Yahoo!, MSN, Google, AOL, Earthlink...all the companies which give you access to the Net. Being corporately owned, how secure and private does that information remain? And what if the government wanted access?
Which brings us to the next story...this time, from the New York Times.
Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story that just might get you to think twice before you search online. With the Patriot Act in place, the government actively uses many forms of modern media technologies in an effort to collect information assessing possible threats and keeping the country secure. That's the intent. But is that all it used for?
While all the recent controversy has focused on wiretaps unauthorized by the court systems, the bigger story may be the government's interest with those routing servers and the databases they contain. That's exactly what the government sought last month during the Christmas holidays, with all the corporations giving access except one -- Google.
In the article, The New York Times talked to a woman who found a story on the BBC's Web site about a British politician who was caught with a "rent boy"--a young male prostitute. The woman, not understanding what a rent boy was, looked it up on Google and became immediately afraid upon finding the answer that she could be held accountable for child pornography by the government.
She'll be fine, of course, but her story underscores the effect the government's aggressive efforts at obtaining user data have had on consumers. By now, many know that the government has subpoenaed user search data from the major search engines--Google, Yahoo!, America Online, MSN (and that all but Google agreed to hand over the information)--in its bid to bring back a law struck down by the Supreme Court banning children from viewing pornography.
Email data storage. Searches. Sounds like technical stuff. But it could get personal. In any event, the signs show that people are definitely starting to worry about our Big Brother in Washington.
Now that is a media trend worth watching...
How Stuff Works website
Read the NY Times Online article here (log on required)
posted by Chris Kennedy @ Wednesday, January 25, 2006,