Friday, November 30, 2012
Reverse Google Search
I just read an article on Bloomberg.com about an amazing piece of investigative work performed on the internet to find some art thieves. The interesting piece in the article is right down near the very end.
To summarize the brilliant idea, Jefferey Gundlach, who seems to be this very rich financial genius, had a very extensive art collection at his home in Santa Monica. In September of this year, thieves robbed more than $10 Million in artwork as well as his Porsche, wine, and watches. As part of the artwork haul the thieves walked off with two works by his grandmother, who was an amateur painter.
The local police and the FBI were both brought in to investigate the crime. A substantial reward was offered for the return of the stolen items. Gundlach also gave the investigators a tip for solving the crime. He said that thieves would most likely do a Google search using his grandmother's name to find out more about the artist and the value of the stolen paintings. He suggested they check the Internet to see if anyone had googled the name. As it turned out there were exactly two such searches -- one by him and one by the thieves. The thieves were arrested and all the artwork was recovered.
This story shows true brilliance by Gundlach. My hat is off to him on the idea to look for the thieves in this way.
All this elation should be tempered with the most obvious implications of what happened here.
Obviously, Google provided the information to the authorities. I am assuming they had a search warrant of some sort to get access to the information. It raises the alarm that anything you may do on the internet may be dissected by the government (or for that matter, even by corporate entities) for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with crime. Sort of like Big Brother watching over your thoughts, don't you think? I read the other day that Facebook is now going to be selling personal information that they have collected. I suspect that we have not seen what the future holds for us in this arena yet. [Note: interestingly, I received an email today that was clearly initiated by the sale of information on my Facebook page to a commercial entity.]
This is a very touchy issue. Appropriate limits must be placed on the use of this kind of powerful "reverse search" capability. I also recall that after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for his nomination to the Supreme Court that limits were placed on access to information on what books or VHS tapes (or DVDs) anyone can access at a library or "video store". The issue seems to have been a factor in the Netflix decision to break up their mail order business from their video streaming business as the laws are quite different on what they could do with this information in each case depending on whether it was information on a DVD rental or a downstream.
As a result of the terrorist attacks of 9-11 we had enactment of legislation in the "Patriot Act" on the ability of law enforcement to access this kind of information without a warrant. Still, there should be very clear limits and controls. Don't you think?