Are Search Terms Considered Private Information?
Many people assume that the search engines can only track you if you have an account and are logged in. However, taking Google as an example, you don’t necessarily need to be logged into a Google service, such as Gmail or Google+, for the search engine to track your queries. In fact, even if you use private browsing mode, the mainstream search engines can and will track your searches. The only difference is that nothing about your browsing session, such as the information stored in browser cookies, will be stored on your local computer.
No one really knows just how extensive Google’s tracking activities are, but the company has faced controversy on several occasions before, particularly when it’s short-lived social network Buzz was found to be scanning sent emails to find out who was friends with who. What is certain, however, is that every search you carry out using Google, whether in normal or private browsing mode, and regardless of whether or not you are logged in to a Google account, is recorded. In other words, Google can learn everything about you from your religious beliefs to dining habits.
You might think that Google is unable to associate your search queries with you, so long as you’re not logged in. However, even if the search engine doesn’t know your name, it can still record your IP address. Your IP address is a unique identifier on the Internet that can be used to easily reveal your Internet service provider and your approximate geographical location. However, it’s also possible, through extensive cross-referencing, to find your name, address, telephone number and a whole raft of other personally identifiable information from your IP address alone.
The search engines do have legitimate reasons for recording your search history. After all, by building up a dossier of the things you’re most interested in, Google is able to deliver more useful search results based on your previous search queries. At the same time, however, it’s important to remember that almost all of the company’s revenue comes from advertising, so it also uses the information it records about you to display more relevant personalised ads. On one hand, Google knowing so much about you might be convenient, but it comes at a huge sacrifice.
Fortunately, there are some fairly straightforward ways to protect your online privacy. For a start, you could connect to the Internet through a VPN, which hides your IP address, instead displaying a different one to websites. Additionally, you can further protect your privacy by using a search engine that doesn’t track your queries.