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2006-08-12 16:04:47

Internet Snoops

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he has always worried the query stream is a fertile ground for governments to snoop on the people.

Although he was alarmed by AOL's haphazard release of its subscribers' online search requests, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said the privacy concerns raised by that breach won't change his company's practice of storing the inquiries made by its users.

"We are reasonably satisfied that this sort of thing would not happen at Google, although you can never say never," Schmidt said during an appearance at a major search engine conference in San Jose.

The security breakdown, disclosed earlier this week, publicly exposed about 19 million search requests made by more than 658,000 AOL subscribers during the three months ended in May.

Time Warner's AOL intended to release the data exclusively to researchers, but the information somehow surfaced on the Internet and was widely copied.

The lapse provided a glaring example of how the information that people enter into search engines can provide a window into their embarrassing or even potentially incriminating wishes and desires. The search requests leaked by AOL included inquiries seeking information about murder techniques and nude teenage girls.

AOL's gaffe hits close to home for Google because the two companies have close business ties. Mountain View-based Google owns a 5 percent stake in AOL, which also accounted for about $330 million of the search engine's revenue during the first half of this year.

AOL also depends on Google's algorithms for its search results.

Schmidt told reporters he hadn't had time to contact AOL executives to discuss the problems underlying the release of the search data, but questioned his business partner's judgment.

"It's a terrible thing," he said during his conference remarks. "Maybe it wasn't a good idea to release it in the first place."

AOL already has publicly apologized for its handling of the search requests, calling it a "screw up."

In response to a reporter's question, Schmidt said some good could still emerge from AOL's error by raising public awareness about the issue. "It may be positive because we want people to know what can happen" to online search requests, Schmidt said.

Google keeps its users' search requests as part of its efforts to better understand what specific people are looking for on the Internet.

But by storing the search requests, Google is creating an opportunity for the material to be mistakenly released or stolen, according to privacy advocates.

Schmidt said he is less concerned about those possibilities than the governments of countries around the world demanding to review people's search requests.

"I have always worried the query stream is a fertile ground for governments to snoop on the people."

The U.S. Justice Department last year subpoenaed Google for millions of its users' search requests as part of a court case involving protections against online child pornography.

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