Thursday, January 26, 2012

Search Engine Privacy

Google emailed me today about their new privacy policy.  I clicked on the links and did some reading.  On the one hand, I'm happy that instead of having a separate privacy policy for each of their different products, they've written one policy to cover them all.  On the other hand, reading the list of data they collect when you use their products is scary.

I use Google's Gmail for email, Blogger for this blog, and YouTube.  Plus I just started using their AdWords product to advertise my novels.  I also use their search engine, but I don't use it exclusively.  It's particularly helpful for finding the images I use on Chimpwithpencil.

But I also believe in each individual's right to privacy, whether it concerns their treatment from corporations, governments or other people.

This is a very broad issue and there are entire books about Internet privacy, so as an experiment I narrowed it down to search engines and privacy.  But this is also a big topic, and one I do not have a full understanding of.  So I narrowed it down to one question:  Does the search engine you use collect your IP address?

Why is this important? Every device that connects to the Internet has a unique number to identify it.  So whether your connection is through a router or direct from your computer, that device has an IP address.  A static IP is one that doesn't change.  Some Internet service providers assign dynamic IP addresses that change each time you use the Internet.

A search engine company collects information about you when you use their service.  And one of the useful pieces of data is your IP address.  If it's static, their work is easy.  If it's dynamic, they can still combine the IP with user ID cookies to track your behavior.  Most of the time, this information will be used to market products to you. 

However, for privacy advocates, the realization that companies are building a profile of your interests, buying habits, medical issues, political and religious beliefs, and more is very disturbing.  This information can be sold to other companies, and governments can force search engines companies to reveal your search history.

So let's get back to our question:  Does the search engine you use collect your IP address?

I visited several search engines and read their privacy policies, which are alternately dull then frightening.  Google collects your IP.  Bing does too, but they get rid of the IPs after 6 months, and delete the cookies after 18 months.  Bing provides the search results for Yahoo, but states they do "full deletion of the IP Address from most log files" in 3 months.

Gigablast doesn't list a privacy policy, just a 'coming soon' page.  Lycos and Ask record your IP.  As an example, here's what Ask gathers:

* * *
Information we collect about your computer or mobile device when you use the Ask service

•IP address of computer

•Browser type (Internet Explorer 8, etc.)

•Browser language setting

•Other browser information (e.g. size, connection speed)

•Operating system or platform (Mac, Windows XP, etc.)

•ID number of mobile device

Information we collect about your use of the Ask service

•The URL of the last webpage you visited before visiting

•All of your activity on the website and Ask mobile applications (your queries, questions, answers, comments, search results selected, clicks, pages viewed, etc.)

We use cookies, pixel tags and mobile device IDs to collect and store this information.
* * *

This is just for random people who open a search page to look for stuff.  If you're a registered user, they collect even more.  Reading the long list above may alarm you, but it's fairly typical of what the search engine providers collect.

There are other search engines out there.  I use Duckduckgo and recently found Startpage.  Both these sites take privacy seriously.  With Duckduckgo I don't always get the search results I'd hoped for, though.  I haven't used Startpage enough yet to have an opinion on its results.  You might also consider Ixquick and Scroogle. 

I am not trying to bash Google or Bing or any other service.  These are businesses and they are in business to make money.  So profiling people to better target them for advertisements makes sense.  But I do worry about the amount of data they control, and if this data might be shared with governments or other corporations.

So while I continue to use Google products as well as services and software from other companies, I urge Internet users to be aware of how data is collected about them.  Read some of the privacy policies and use caution.  Big Brother is most definitely watching.

(The links above should take you to the privacy policies for the individual search engines, or to their start pages.)


  1. This is a good discussion about a very controversial on-going topic regarding user privacy. Several big names such as Google and Facebook already have accusations of violation.

  2. Perth, I just read an article this morning where employers asked job applicants to supply their Facebook passwords during their interview, so the employer could check their private profiles. Privacy is a human right we must constantly work to keep.

    Thanks for commenting!