The Snoop In Your Browser

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Everyone and his Big Brother wants to log your browsing habits, the better to build a profile of who you are and how you live your life — online and off. Search engine companies offer a benefit in return: more relevant search results. The more they know about you, the better they can tailor information to your needs. But you pay a price, whether you know it or not.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose a friendly fellow named Mr. Google turns up at your door. He offers to become your personal assistant, for free. He’ll follow you around during waking hours and help you find things. To get to know you better, he’ll take notes on where you are (by IP address, wireless access point, etc.), where you plan to go (“flights to Cayman islands,” “directions to AA meeting”), what you shop for (“ammunition,” “birth control”), what you read (“communist manifesto,” “where to hide money”), what you worry about (“symptoms of herpes,” “domestic protection order”), and so on. Soon Mr. Google knows a whole lot of your secrets. He stays with you year after year. He keeps his notebooks and files them carefully. And all you have to do is sign a document saying he can share what he knows about you, under vague or undisclosed circumstances, with business partners and government investigators.

Sound good? Read Google’s terms of service and its current and coming privacy policies. Think about all the latitude Google gives itself when it says it can mine your information to “develop or improve our services,” can share it with “affiliated companies or other trusted businesses,” and can hand it over to government or other third parties if Google perceives a risk to “the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public.” It’s not entirely fair to single out Google, since many information companies impose similar legal terms, but Google is the industry leader and invented some of the most intrusive practices.

Babes, Boats and Large-Breasted Men

For a taste of what search engines know about you, check out AOL Stalker. There you’ll find every search term entered by 650,000 AOL users during a three month period in 2006. Try a few embarrassing phrases and see who looked for them. I’ll keep this clean: Type “nose job.” You’ll find 131 people who searched that term, not identified by name. Click on one of them — say, user 2741488. Now you can see everything else Mr. 1488 searched for, including acne cures, “thug radio”, “babes and boats,” and how to diagnose gynecomastia, which involves the development of abnormally large breasts in men. Mr. 1488 is supposed to be anonymous, but researchers found it was not terribly hard to identify AOL users by putting together clues from their assembled searches.

I’m not saying that search engine companies routinely release this sort of data in public. Actually, the AOL case is startling because it’s the first I know of that lets you see in concrete terms how intimate a trail we leave by merely browsing. In this case, one AOL employee made the data set available for research purposes. AOL was hit with lawsuits like this one (PDF) and fired the employee. My point is not that your digital life will ordinarily be available to everybody, but that it is always available to the search engine company itself. And it can be disclosed, without notice to you, under circumstances that the search companies leave deliberately opaque.

Are the search engine companies all the same?

No. There are big differences. Google appears to store your search logs for the longest time (as in, forever). It claims to “anonymize” your identity after 9 months, but the method Google uses actually leaves only 254 possibilities for your identity, among its hundreds of millions of users. Bing anonymizes its logs sooner, within six months, and more thoroughly. Yahoo is still better, scrubbing search logs after 90 days. And offers an option, called AskEraser, which promises to remove your identity from its search database “within a matter of hours, except in rare circumstances.”

None of that is good enough. Tune in to my next post for a better answer.

More on Techland:

Rumored ‘Google Me’ Social Network Not Quite As Anticipated

Google Announces Instant Search Results Feature