Google Me Not
ype the right words into Google and up comes a trove of files documenting
an acrimonious divorce between two business executives in San Diego. CA.
Support payments are calculated based on a $450,000 income. The husband
accuses the wife of being a “shop-a-holic.” He lists all her possessions, including
furs worth $15,000. He’s eager to finalize the divorce, because, as he writes, he was
to marry again in June.
All this is personal, private information, no longer even up on the original Web site,
yet stored by Google for everyone to see, including friends, family and business
associates who enter in the divorced couple’s names. When reached by phone, the
husband says he is “stunned and shocked” that FORBES is interested in the matter
As Web pages pile up like garbage in a landfill-1 billion will go up this -sensitive,
defamatory, confidential or embarrassing information is increasingly finding its way into search results. The search industry is raging, with $1.5 billion in revenue
expected this year, up 150% from 2003. Google’s hotly anticipated $3.8 billion
public offering is just around the corner. These riches are fueling a technological
arms race among Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and others whose software combs the
Web constantly, indexing and storing all that you seek and ranking pages on their
Search engines can store results in their “cache” for between a month and forever.
As archiving improves, it will get harder to clean up what’s been revealed. Rarely
are leaks intentional
Somebody at work might post a file on a server to download at home, a wrongly
configured server might make too much of a hard drive searchable or a Web site’s
password-protection might be flimsy enough to be accessible to search engines.
Google turned up detailed monthly expenses and employee salaries at the National
Speleological Society’s site, caves.org. Says the group’s president Scott Fee, “That
ain’t supposed to be up there.” On the site of the Naval Postgraduate School in
Monterey, California materials are posted for a class on computer networking,
including log-in files that could be of interest to the right hacker. All manner of
personal correspondence, including transcripts of intimate instant-messaging
exchanges, can be unearthed by search engines. Pamela Dixon, a privacy advocate
at the World Privacy Forum, tells of an elementary school teacher whose contract
was not renewed with a Solano County, Calif. school district. This item appears in
the minutes of a school board meeting. The announcement still comes up second
upon Googling her name. Dixon says this has been devastating to the teacher’s
job search and that attempts to have the minutes taken down have so far been
The 15-person staff at Craig’s List, the popular community message board, acts as a
rapid response team to keep people from harassing each other by name before one
of the 150 search engines that index the site grabs the offending page. Google,
because of the way it stores things, can perpetuate a problem,” says founder Craig
Newmark, who recently spent an afternoon chasing a user who wrote six nasty
messages about a neighbor.
Search programs will be casting a wider net. Microsoft is tinkering with a technol--
ogy called “Stuff” I’ve seen that will pull results from the Web along with one’s
own computer and its network. (Microsoft claims this won’t make personal files
viewable by the public.) Google’s Internet Explorer toolbar tracks the sites users
surf and relays the addresses back to headquarters. That may be how Google results
can turn up Web pages people naively consider private, since they’re not linked to
or from anywhere. Google lets users disable the feature: Just turn off the PageRank
feature in the Options menu.
Google recognizes the Web’s power to publicize and offers Web masters a simple
interface to remove their own pages from its index. (Type “remove” into Google to
get started.) Other preventive measures include putting sensitive info behind
password-protected walls and attaching so-called robot files to Web sites that tell
search engines not to index a particular page or site. All the search engines follow
these robot directives, which, while not a perfect security solution, limit the entry
points used by the bots and spiders that index the Web.
Foundstone, an Internet security company in Mission Viejo, Calif., has developed a
tool called SiteDigger that piggybacks on Google to point up information leaks.
Point it at a site or an entire domain, such as .edu, and it generates a list of c-mails,
log-in screens, data-base errors and source code, all of which are classic ways to
gain entry onto a server. The free tool is a nice way to attract business for
Foundstone, and also a scary reminder of how much information is out there, says
SiteDigger designer Mark Curphey. Combing through sites ending in .mil, the
domain for the armed forces, a recent Googling uncovered 17,300 Excel
spreadsheets, 56,000 PowerPoint presentations, 258,000 Word files and 681,000
Acrobat Reader files.
Search results can be rigged to gain a higher position; pranksters can manipulate
your page so that it shows up whenever someone Googles the word “jerk,” a
practice known as Google bombing. So why not do the opposite to play down
bad publicity? Public relations firm Weber Shandwick employs a search expert in
Irving, Tex. named Jeffrey Martin, whose specialty is advising clients on how to
bury bad news under rosier search results. Systems integration company Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, California offers a product called
Open Source Monitoring that scans the Web, newsgroups, Listservs and any other public forums for names and trade-marks. Companies use it as an early warning
system for hackers, stock manipulators, disgruntled employees and bad-mouthers.
The program has helped companies avoid violent protests and direct police to
ex-employees who make threats or try to leak confidential information, says
Timothy Appleby, the project’s chief scientist.
Better archiving technologies are extending the shelf lives of data you don’t want
people to see. Google and its competitors save copies of Web pages in a data-
base that makes the pages accessible even when links to the site have been taken
down. These cached links are destroyed the next time Google re-indexes the Inter-
net, anywhere from a day to a month. But an online service called the Wayback
Machine at archive.org keeps records of old Web sites. You never know what’s
going to turn up there.
Like libraries, Google and its search rivals do not assume responsibility for the
content that they catalog. But with law-suits filed at the drop of a hat, search ser-
vices should take note. In June Varian Medical Systems won a case against two
former employees who defamed company executives online, winning $775,000 in damages in what’s become a landmark Internet speech case. A judge ruled last year in New Hampshire that Docusearch, a purveyor of personal information,
could be sued for the death of a stalking victim whose murderer used its services. (The case was settled before trial.)
Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy famously said, “You already have zero
privacy. Get over it.” That’s not quite true. You can fight back, up to a point.
August 16, 2004, (pgs.102-104)
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