In the last issue of Tech Talk, I covered browser cookies, the little bits of digital information that advertisers and web companies put on your PC. Cookies record your website account information, such as when you last visited the site, and allow you to not have to log into the website each visit.
When you use a search engine and follow the search-result links away from the site, the web service tracks those clicks and keeps that information, as well as tracking when you don’t click away from the results.
This yields staggering amounts of information that is used for search and advertising marketing and demographic calculations. Some of it can be directly correlated to your user account with a search engine and the “internet protocol” address of your PC.
The sensitivity of search-engine information was first revealed in 2006 when researchers at America Online released data on 20 million web searches made by around 650,000 people.
The incident is still known as AOL’s “Exxon Valdez moment” because AOL didn’t foresee such interest in the data and the privacy implications, and it’s still regarded as test case of what not to do as a search-engine company.
Even though the original searchers’ AOL logins were changed to random numbers in an attempt to keep enough information private to prevent any individuals from being identified, reporters for the New York Times were able to easily piece together the identity of one person.
They connected the dots to the identity of one person by the clues in her searches for information ranging from real-estate addresses to last names, health matters, dog care and others.
When the reporters talked to the 60-year-old widow, she was surprised that she was able to be identified and “shocked” that AOL had first kept the data, and then released the data, too.
“That’s my whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.” To read the whole article, go to markratledge.com/link/trace/.
That was 2006, a long time ago in the age of the Internet. At the time, AOL had a miniscule search-market share compared to current services like Google, Yahoo and Bing.
Is there another search engine “Valdez” on the way? Probably, with all the other privacy gaffes that seem to regularly take place with huge web companies like Google and Facebook. Even though search-engine companies protect user data more closely, and by law retain it for just a few months, privacy remains at risk.
You can look into cookie management for the browser you use: Apple’s Safari: http://www.apple.com/safari/ – Microsoft’s Internet Explorer: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/cookies-faq#1TC=windows-7 – Firefox: https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/cookies-information-websites-store-on-your-computer