“Google could easily become the poster child for a national public movement to regulate data collection,” says Jeff Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocate.
Unbeknownst to many users, privacy advocates like Chester say, Google’s technology gives it enormous power to collect data on the interests and online habits of millions of Web surfers.
Google stores every user’s searches in its growing database and index of websites, maps, photographs and other documents. Its free e-mail program, Gmail, stores all user messages â€” including deleted ones â€” forever.
Type someone’s name or phone number into Google’s search box and you’ll likely turn up a home address, allowing you to see an aerial photo of their house from the Google Earth satellite photo service, started last year.
Daniel Brandt in San Antonio, creator of the Google-Watch.org website, worries that law enforcement authorities or repressive foreign governments could demand access to Google’s database to examine users’ surfing habits.
“Google will become bigger and bigger, and they will be a massive problem in terms of Internet privacy,” Brandt says.
The Senate Judiciary Committee last month passed a data privacy bill that goes to the full Senate. The bill, whose sponsors include Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would regulate data brokers, force more security and increase penalties for identity theft.
A breach of Google’s database could be a catalyst for more lawmaker attention. “That would be the Tylenol scare to end all Tylenol scares at Google,” Battelle says.