Fri, Aug 18, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Google's tracking records fueling privacy concerns

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Has the time finally come to stop using Google? Maybe it has, if you care about your privacy. There's no doubt that Google does care about your privacy, and aims to protect it.

Earlier this year, for example, it refused to release anonymous search data demanded by the US government for a study, even though other search engines meekly handed it over. But rather than protecting such data, you might well think Google shouldn't collect it in the first place.

The question has risen to prominence over the past week, after a New York Times reporter phoned "Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Georgia" and revealed that he knew altogether too much about her.

Arnold was the first person to be publicly identified from the anonymous search data released by AOL (America Online). Arnold was shocked.

"My goodness, it's my whole personal life," she told the reporter. "I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder."

Anyone who has a complete record of your searches might be able to find you too. In fact, it could be easy if you have done any "ego surfing" or looked up things by post code. This could be worrying news if you have searched for child pornography, bomb-making instructions, or a variety of illnesses and afflictions including AIDS and mental health issues. At least one person in the AOL data was searching for the best way to kill a wife.

But even if you are as blameless as Arnold, you'd have to wonder whether you really want Google to record such data forever. Once it exists, it might be released either deliberately or accidentally, it could be hacked, and perhaps even trawled by governments looking for terrorists (justification) or any malfeasance they can find.

The bad news is that Google -- which supplies AOL's search results -- has all that data and more. If you use Google's Gmail, address book, calendar, maps and other services, it could even tie your search data to things you are really doing. Google also knows which other Web sites you visit, if they use AdWords, and when.

Google's argument for collecting and storing all this invasive data is that it can provide better search results and, particularly, better targeted advertisements. The ads are how Google makes its billions. But trading privacy risks for better advertising sounds like a bad deal for users.

One answer is to delete the cookies that Google and other search engines (which are mostly as bad, or worse) put on your hard drive, and do searches via an anonymous proxy, so the search engine cannot tie them to your Internet address.

Another is to switch to search engines that say they don't record user data such as ixquick (www.ixquick.com/) and Clusty (clusty.com/).

US advocates have described AOL's data spill as a "Data Valdez" -- in reference to the Exxon Valedez oil spill -- and hope it will make more people care about their privacy.

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