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Google trawls chat

Ask not for whom the bot crawls - it crawls for thee

Yesterday's satire sometimes turns out to be tomorrow's news. Last year Brian Del Vecchio, a systems engineer, created a stir with a spoof Google site which added an extra tab called "AIMsearch". The spoof explained:

"In November of 2001 AOL Time Warner, responding to a subpoena from Attorney General John Ashcroft, made available to the Justice Department a complete archive of all private conversations held over AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Through the power of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Google was able to obtain a copy of this entire logfile, totaling over 2 terabytes of conversations previously thought to be private."

"This unique resource provides insight into the minds of potential anti-American terrorists, cheating spouses, and countless computer neophytes."

(The pages were removed after a legal request from Google but the correspondence lives on.)

This month many users of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) have noticed increased activity from Google's servers.

"Since things said in chat rooms are traditionally considered very private, I can't imagine what they plan to do," says Aaron Swartz, a young programmer who runs a Google fan blog.

Indeed, IRC has been historically useful, or notorious, depending on how you look at it, for exchanging files. Google's bots don't stay around long enough to make comprehensive indexes of the conversations, users tell us. Google sent a polite note back to one query, explaining that the behavior is part of an experiment, but confirming that it is search related.

However IRC privacy has always been something of a contradiction. ISPs routinely log IRC chat sessions, and by nature, Microsoft and TimeWarner store chat room archives. It'a tribute to the power of fluffy marketing (think: colored balls) that so far, the reaction has been one of unease and curiosity. How IRC users would react to a bot from microsoft.com is an exercise left to the reader. ®

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