What do your web search say about you?

joseph's picture

A major digital privacy issue arises when your search history is tracked.

While it may seem innocuous, in the age of big data and AI, your web searches are used to make a quite detailed profile - your gender, age, ethnicity, relationship status, income level, and a host of other social indicators can be inferred just from a history of your search terms.
Really.

Web Search Engines (like Google, Bing, Yahoo, ...) keep track of every search you make.  If you are logged in (e.g., to gmail or youtube when using Google search, or to hotmail or msn while using Bing, etc.), then all your search requests are tied directly to your account.  If you are not logged in, your IP address, cookies, search terms, and other data are used to create a consistent profile that can often be used to identify you as an individual.
Really.

This is not speculation, it is not corporate or government maleficence, it is no conspiracy theory.  It's just a business model.

What can you do?

Your browser's "incognito" or "private browsing" mode can not help here. 
But here are 2 key strategies to keeping your searches anonymous:

  1.  log out of web services when you are done.  You are not completely anonymous when logged out, but it is harder to be tracked.
    Note this approach does not work for mobile apps, which keep you logged in at all times
    (Mobile apps, in general, are data collection machines, but that's for a different post.)
     
  2.  Use an intermediary search engine.
    The search engine I recommend is https://duckduckgo.com/

DuckDuckGo (among others) does the Google search for you and returns the Google results.  You get all the power of the Google's search engine (no doubt the best there is), but your privacy is protected through the use of an intermediary. 
Google still gets the data they need to improve their search engine, but all those search terms are aggregated across all users of DuckDuckGo. 

A simple, elegant solution that anyone can implement today.  No software to install, no technical knowledge needed -- just start using a different search engine.

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