Microsoft Admits Giving Feds Search Data

WASHINGTON — Microsoft publicly admitted today it had complied with a U.S. Department of Justice subpoena for users’ search data from the MSN search service, a subpoena that Google so far has refused to obey.

Writing on his official Microsoft MSN blog, Search Development and Test General Manager Ken Moss stressed that no personally identifiable information was given to the government in complying with the request.

“Let me start with this core principle statement: privacy of our customers is non-negotiable and something worth fighting to protect,” Moss said. “With this data [given to the DOJ] you can see how frequently some query terms occurred. You cannot look up an IP and see what they queried.”

Moss said that in complying with the request, Microsoft handed over a random sample of pages from the MSN index and some aggregated query logs that “listed queries and how often they occurred.”

In other words, the company gave the government data that details key words MSN search customers enter over an extended period.

“Absolutely no personal data was involved,” he said.

Yahoo also has complied with a similar subpoena.

The recent requests by the DOJ have touched off a number of privacy concerns, with many opponents arguing that the type of information someone searches for on the Internet defines the user’s personality, and is therefore an invasion of privacy, regardless of whether or not the individual is personally identified.

Privacy groups also have theorized that the initial request by the DOJ, though relatively innocuous, could lead to larger invasions.

“If … the Justice Department finds search strings like 'child porn' or 'naked children,' could they not then go back and ask [the search engine] for the user's Internet address?” said Chris Jay Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of several groups vocally opposed to the government’s requests.

Although Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has called the privacy concerns “over blown,” the subpoenas mark a clear move on the part of the Bush administration to revive the spirit of the infamous Child Online Protection Act shot down by the Supreme Court more than two years ago.