Your privacy just became “speculative”

How would you change your internet browsing habits if you knew someone–the CIA, your boss, your mother, anyone–was looking over your shoulder watching every Google search you did, every website you browsed, and every YouTube video you watched? Well, they are–at least the part about YouTube.

The internet giant Google is being forced to hand over the personal information of every person who has ever watched a video on the YouTube website as part of a billion-dollar court case in the US.

A judge in New York has ordered that Google, which owns YouTube, must pass on the details of more than 100 million people – many of them in the UK – to Viacom, the US broadcasting company which owns channels including MTV and Nickelodeon.

The data will include unique internet addresses, email accounts and the history of every video watched on the website, giving Viacom’s experts the ability to conduct a detailed examination of the viewing habits of millions of people around the world.

The information is being sought in relation to a copyright lawsuit, but Google says they want to anonymize the data–strip it of personally identifying information–before turning it over to the courts.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation agrees, pointing out that the Video Privacy Protection Act protects “personally identifiable information,” which is defined to include “information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services.”

What can you do? The second most frequent search item on YouTube right now is how to clear your viewing history. You can sign up for Google and its sister entity YouTube using the throwaway registration website (WordPress blogs won’t let you do that), but it looks to me like you can’t change your email address once you have it. You can clear your geographical information, except for the country. But using a pseudonym on YouTube may not be enough to protect your privacy. The AOL search fiasco proved that users could be identified just by the information they searched for.

In the meantime. the ruling opens up any number of possibilities of how your credit card information, telephone bills, electronic tolls or subway tickets, and what diseases or fetishes you search for on the internet can be made public.

But why? Whatever is the court thinking of?

U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton dismissed privacy arguments as speculative.

Back in the golden age of the 60’s, when every university rule from no alcohol to required chapel attendance to required English 101 courses was being challenged, a certain university decided to have a rule that if you lived in a dorm and you had a visitor of the opposite sex, the door to your room had to be open at a 45 degree angle. Students were not pleased. In the middle of the night, they managed to remove the front door of the college president, who lived in a small mansion on campus. “Let’s see how HE likes not having any privacy”, the students said later. The rule was rescinded.

I sincerely hope that this very moment someone is speculatively taking the front door off of judge Louis L. Stanton’s life.