Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The tracks you leave when searching

Danny Sullivan has done a Flowchart To Tracks You Leave Behind when using a search engine. He conlcudes:

"As you can see, ensuring your search privacy is tricky. The information you send is leaving traces in multiple places. The solution to ensuring privacy isn't going to be as easy as passing a law that targets Google, Yahoo and the others. Ideally, the entire lifecycle of a search beyond the computer desktop needs to be considered from ISP through to tracking services. Searchers themselves also need to consider what they do on their own computer desktops.

There's also an issue of what should be private. I wrote earlier today that most people probably think the conversations they have with search engines as being private. But to date, we don't have any protected searcher-search engine relationship as we do with attorney-client privilege or between clergy and worshipper. Perhaps that needs to be enshrined in some way. But then again, others may feel that going out on to the public web and using publicly accessible search engines entitles no one to an expectation of privacy, or perhaps a more limited one.

Certainly, we need to have a good debate and discussion. That's probably the good that's coming out of the Department Of Justice action. After years of worrying about privacy issues, the DOJ action is turning that worry into action about better protections that may need to be put into place.

Let me add that while I hate the sloppy manner in how the DOJ has acted in this particular case, I have no more interest in criminals using the internet for bad purposes than most people would. In specific circumstances, with the right legal oversight, I hope search or internet browsing data might be evidence that helps catch a criminal, just as I hope they'd be caught through legally approved wiretapping or other types of law enforcement monitoring.

What I don't want is a Big Brother state to be mining everything with the assumption we're all criminals, any more than I want all telephone calls to be monitored. Moreover, it's very, very easy to mistakenly assume from a search request that something wrong is happening, when it is not. Jon Swift takes a light-hearted look at this in his post today, but it's true. A search for "bombing the white house" doesn't mean someone's planning to do that. It may simply be that you're trying to find out about someone who may have attempted this.

Aside from the government issue, there's the concern that the search companies themselves might misuse data. That needs to be considered and improved guidelines or laws developed. Even better would be to see such moves as part of improved protection of consumer information of all types. The amount of data about what people personally are interested in and do seems easier to obtain from consumer research organizations right now than what search engines possibly might provide in the future. How about considering these both together, rather than separately, an idea that came up in a Newsfactor article on Google and consumer data in general last year."

Read the original to pick up on a load of interesting links.

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