It’s now well-known that Internet search engines, in return for opening to us a world of knowledge, also open up some of our most private information to almost anyone who wants it. Search engines routinely record and compile what you search for, what you find, which search results you pursue. The larger search engines have associations with other companies and products (Google with its family of “free” applications such as Gmail, the Google Docs office suite, Google Health medical records, Google Earth, Picassa, Blogger, YouTube, and many others; Bing with its parent Microsoft; A9 with Amazon, and many more) that allow them to aggregate much more information about you.
The result is that Google, Microsoft, etc. know not only what PC products you use, but they know exactly how you use them, what you think and even your most private thoughts. Your spouse may not know all your deepest fantasies and fascinations, but Google, perhaps through its subsidiary products Google Images, Google Videos, and YouTube, probably does. Google et al will also know your political leanings, your social affiliations, much of your social network, where you travel, where you work, a lot about your finances, even where you are at any moment of the day or night (if you have Internet access on your phone).
Should you worry about this? In my humble — but accurate — opinion: Yes, absolutely. Most people won’t realize what they’re giving up until it’s used against them via Internet fraud, in a messy divorce, by a government agency, by an angry co-worker, or myriad others. For a great many Internet users, what the search engines, associated entities and their customers can assemble about them is probably enough to cause them severe embarrassment, financial loss, perhaps even total ruin.
I know what you’re thinking: “You’re being paranoid.” That’s true. I get paid to be paranoid, to think about things like loss of privacy, how it can be used against you, who does such things and how to stop them. The Internet is flooded with such traps and rapacious agents. If this is all new to you, it’s because you hadn’t looked, not because it wasn’t there.
But no need to despair — there is a lot you can do about this. Smarter practices, Internet protection software, being diligent about updates and yes, a touch of wariness, can greatly lower your risk profile. But until recently something for which there was little defense was the collection of information about you by search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. In most cases the search companies would not even reveal what they collected, what they did with it, or to whom they make it available. And there was (and is) certainly no way you can view, contest, or delete the info they have about you.
But now you have some choices about that. The search engine Ask.com, if you opt for its AskEraser option, promises to erase your search history — most of the time, eventually — be sure to read the terms and exceptions. If you use the FireFox browser, there are add-ons that will attempt to obfuscate Google’s findings about you by various means, such as continually submitting random searches from you to Google, presumably making it very difficult for Google to discern what your real searches are.
But the most lead-pipe simple solution to search engine privacy is a search engine that doesn’t collect any information about you at all. And the new DuckDuckGo search engine does just that — it collects no information about you at all. And from what I’ve seen of it so far, it’s an excellent search engine, offering some handy features that even Google doesn’t offer. DuckDuckGo is a classic bootstrap entrepreneurial story — a smart programmer named Gabriel Weinberg who despaired of the invasion of privacy by search engines, so decided to build his own.
One more thing: If you value your Internet privacy, you should start by adopting Mozilla’s Firefox browser and immediately equipping it with the NoScript and AdBlock Plus add-ons. NoScript is without a doubt the best protection there is against hidden malicious scripts and other types of hidden traps that remain untouched by other Internet protection products, and there is no equivalent product available for any browser other than Firefox. The thousands of useful add-ons for Firefox (and, for Windows users, its independence from the operating system) are reason enough to prefer it over Microsoft’s much-maligned Internet Explorer.
For more information and lots of useful links about Internet privacy, see the following articles on Wikipedia, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this excellent Google-protection guide from Computerworld, and for an all-around backgrounder this superb report from the indispensable Pacific Research Institute. For one of the most interesting new “discoveries” on ways you can be tracked on the Web, see the latest Panopticlick findings from the EFF.
Be safe out there.