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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Living life as an open book

Careful what you Google. — Reuters file photo

I’m sure it will be popular.

But to me, it all comes back to the difference between the things you could do, and the things you should — or shouldn’t — do.

Back in September, Amazon announced it would be offering a new kind of home security device — a small drone that can fly around your house while you’re not home, looking for trouble and sending high-definition video of whatever’s going on to your phone. Look for burglars, check to see if you left the stove on, glance at what you left on the bureau. And, probably, add a footprint of all that information in the internet cloud so that it can be reviewed later, and not just by you, either.

I’m not a big believer in having remote sensing devices inside my home; I don’t have any labour-saving, internet-linked devices like Alexa that I can simply ask questions of. Having an internet ear in the living room just seems like a bad idea — and a roaming video-collecting “eye in the sky” seems like an even worse one.


Here’s a cautionary tale about something as simple as your next Google search.


I do, however, have a smartphone and a computer, and already wonder about the huge amounts of information that have been harvested about me. Sometimes when I write about this, far more device-savvy people than me write back and say, essentially, “you can’t stop the harvest anyway, and it just joins everyone else’s information in the huge info-tank.” In other words, it may be collected, but so be it.

Well, here’s a cautionary tale about something as simple as your next Google search.

A car in Florida rented by a witness in singer R. Kelly’s sex crimes case burned in an arson fire. The police, trying to find a potential suspect, got a warrant in a New York court.

The warrant was a curious one: it ordered Google to release information to police outlining “users who had searched the address of the residence close in time to the arson.”

Google complied, and among the users who had searched the address — and there were more than one — police found a potential suspect, and began the process of connecting information in that suspect’s phone to the arson.

Bear in mind, this happened in the United States, in the Eastern District of New York, to be exact, and laws in the U.S. and here are obviously different.

What isn’t different is that the reams of information that Google collects during your use of its service and the company’s willingness to turn it over after receiving an appropriate search warrant.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

There’s a marked difference between compelling Google to release the search history of a known suspect to help connect that individual to a crime and asking the internet giant to supply the computer addresses of everyone who made a particular search, on the off chance that one of the searches matched up with someone who would fit the bill as a suspect. And if a police force is in court looking for a search warrant to collect that information, there’s no one talking to the judge about the reasons why the warrant shouldn’t be allowed.

I don’t blame police forces for turning over every stone they’re allowed to in the effort to investigate crimes and charge suspects.

I’m just not sure how broadly they should be allowed to cast their nets when they are looking for a starting point.

Oh, and I’m not getting the drone. Obviously.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.


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