Thursday, August 23, 2007

Search engines

Research work is now quite easy with massive data on the Internet. Many people depend on the Internet for information. You can type anything in any search engine and you will be given much information related to any topic you like. It is so common nowadays that such action has become natural to us. We do not have a second thought in using the Internet as the most common and versatile source of almost all information.

We know that the Internet is not benign. It is a jungle out there and we have to be aware of all sort of traps. So, please also be aware of the search engines of large companies because your personal data is leaking while you search.

All servers of search engines log information whenever someone does a web search. The data logged are search keywords, IP addresses of the search requests and information in cookies. Cookies can authenticate the user and keep information such as the user's preferences. With such information, the identity of the user can be traced. The search engine companies may not normally do the trace, but there are incidents that assistance is given to the police for the tracking down of criminals. The companies however would do behavioural targeting for the purpose of advertisement placement and data-mine the database of search records for marketing research.

Recently, Google announced a new policy on search data privacy that the company would anonymize the final eight bits of the IP address and the cookie data of search records after 18 months. The information on specific searches would remain indefinitely. However, Google also acknowledged that log anonymization would not guarantee that the government could not be able to identify a specific computer or user, although it would add another layer of privacy protection to the user data.

CNet recently did report on the topic on the topic based on interviews with several large search engine companies on their practices. These companies are now undergoing a trade war on the front of search engine privacy policy. There are advertisements on their privacy policy to the effect that their customers are better protected. Whatever the policy, it seems personal data is leaked in the first instance when you search.

Five companies were surveyed: Ask.com, AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Ask.com appeared to be the best claiming that the search records would be deleted within hours with nothing done on them. All other companies kept the records for a year to one and a half years. Two companies linked user information to the search records and three companies did behavioural targeting.

Whether this constitutes to personal data privacy violation is a personal judgment. I think it is unavoidable to release some personal data when you use the services of others. The main issue is to defend ourselves on illegal and harmful use of the personal data. Besides the pledge of the companies on data security, we need to be alert of our assets in cyberspace and be vigilant all the time.

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