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Google search and seizure

THE NEW York Times recently reported that in a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence the fact that the defendant's Google searches had included the words ''neck" and ''snap." The Times noted that the evidence had come from the defendant's home computer, but could just as easily have come from Google.

Google's whole business-model includes keeping track of users' searches by putting ''cookies" (tracking devices) on users' own computers, and then using the results to customize ad offerings that pop up when we use their ingenious free search service.

In the era of the misnamed USA Patriot Act, which allows warrantless police searches that are not even disclosed to the target, Google plus Dick Cheney is a recipe for undoing the liberties for which the original patriots of the American Revolution bled and died. Under the Patriot Act, anyone suspected of enabling terrorism can be subjected to these fishing expeditions. Depending on a prosecutor's whims, that includes all of us.

In the 18th-century era of star-chamber courts and despotic monarchs, the US Constitution put an end to government as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Unreasonable searches and seizures were explicitly prohibited by the Sixth Amendment. People (not just citizens) were guaranteed the right to confront their accusers and to know the charges against them. There were no ''national security" loopholes.

Google's internal slogan is, charmingly, ''Don't be evil." Well, the interaction of cyber-snooping and the unreasonable searches authorized by the Patriot Act is pure evil.

Herewith an idea that I am putting into the public domain, which could make some computer-whiz a billionaire: One of Google's competitors could guarantee users of its search engines that all data keeping track of searches will be permanently discarded after 24 hours. The search process could still learn a broad pattern of users' purchasing tastes, if we wish to be party to a bargain of being marketed to in exchange for the convenience of free searches.

The same libertarian computer entrepreneur could offer e-mail software, in which old messages are permanently erased unless the user deliberately opts to retain them.

Google, like Microsoft and IBM before it, may be the current market leader in whiz-bang technology based on sheer inventive genius. But if Google is not careful, some competitor with a genuine regard for privacy could displace it.

We all grew up vaguely knowing that 20th century technology, under fairly narrow circumstances, could invade privacy. The phone company kept track of everyone's calling records. These could be subpoenaed. Prosecutors and detectives, with warrants approved by judges, could deploy telephone wiretaps. There were occasional abuses, as in the witch hunts of the 1950s, but for the most part these technological invasions of privacy were used against bad guys, not for broad fishing expeditions. And there was no e-mail and no Google.

Today, however, the explosion of computer technology coupled with the discarding of prosecutorial restraints is leading to a Big-Brother society. Unless we pay attention, the technology is so seductive that we become enablers of our own enslavement.

The universal information that is so empowering could be enslaving in another respect. Check out a little satire available on the Internet titled EPIC 2014. It is a short, dystopian picture of the next 10 years.

EPIC stands for the Evolving Personalized Information Construct. In this grim view of the near future, Google merges with Amazon and becomes ''Google-zon," the ultimate information market monopoly.

By 2014, the press as we know it no longer exists. Google-zon usurps the press's advertising base by ultra-customizing all ads. There is no longer the traditional craft of reporter or editor. Newspapers go out of business or become small niche products.

''Everyone contributes now -- from blog entries to phone-cam images, to video reports, to full investigations," the video says. Everyone is a news producer as well as a news consumer, and it's almost impossible to differentiate journalism from junk. Computers strip and splice items, based on each user's past interests, pattern of use, and declared preferences. News is prioritized according to how many users read each item. Ads are similarly customized. We are universally connected, but universally fragmented and universally vulnerable to misinformation and government and commercial snooping.

The marketplace may solve this dilemma by offering privacy-sensitive products, but entrepreneurs may also make the problem worse. The moment cries out for political as well as commercial leadership.

Correction: Last week's column referred to Warren Tolman. It should have been Steven Tolman.

Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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