Google's recent legal spat with the U.S. Department of Justice highlights not only what information search engines record about us but also the shortcomings in a federal law that's supposed to protect online privacy.

It's only a matter of time before other attorneys realize that a person's entire search history is available for the asking, and the subpoenas begin to fly. This could happen in civil lawsuits or criminal prosecutions.

That type of fishing expedition is not legally permitted for Web mail providers. But because search engines are not fully shielded by the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act--concocted back in the era of CompuServe and bulletin board systems--their users don't enjoy the same level of privacy.

"Back then, providers were very different animals than they are now," says Paul Ohm, a former Justice Department attorney who teaches computer crime law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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