Search Engine Privacy

Search-engine privacy comes in two flavors.

  • First, there is the privacy interest of the search target. The power of search has significantly reduced the transaction costs of compiling digital dossiers profiling a person’s activities. Before the advent of search engines, we enjoyed a degree of “practical obscurity,” protecting our privacy interest in issues such as litigation, asset ownership, past employment, and political opinion. Although such information has always been in the public sphere, it was protected de facto from all but skilled investigators or highly motivated researchers, due to the practical difficulty and costs involved in uncovering and compiling the data. Today such information has become available instantly and free of charge through search engines such as Google. Generally, access to information is a good thing, of course. We all benefit from finding the best consumer goods at rock bottom prices. We greatly value the increased access to information for research, education, business, and pleasure. Indeed, search engines create enormous social benefits. Yet these efficiency gains come at a cost to the search targets, whose private lives becomes accessible and searchable by current and prospective employers, romantic prospects, nosy neighbors, press reporters, and even stalkers and other criminals. A balance must be struck between the efficiency benefits and the privacy costs of search engine activity.
  • Second, there is the privacy interest of the person conducting the search (“user”). In August 2005, as part of its longstanding effort to enforce the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the U.S. government issued a subpoena to AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, requesting the addresses of all web sites indexed by the search engines as well as every search term entered by search engine users during a period of two months. The government was seeking to refute the assertion that filtering devices may work as well as or better than criminal prosecutions in achieving the COPA’s aims of keeping pornographic materials away from children. The government wanted to prove its point by showing what the average Internet user is searching for, surmising that many of the searches lead to material harmful to minors. Of the four companies approached, only Google objected to the government subpoena, claiming that the request for information threatened its trade secrets and image as a protector of user privacy. Consider the scrutiny you give to an e-mail message prior to clicking “send,” compared to the utter carelessness before Googling a search query. Users’ search-query logs may contain highly revealing, personally identifiable information. We use search engines to explore job opportunities, financial investments, consumer goods, sexual interests, travel plans, friends and acquaintances, matchmaking services, political issues, religious beliefs, medical conditions, and more. One’s search history eerily resembles a metaphorical X-ray photo of one’s thoughts, beliefs, fears, and hopes. It is ripe with information that is financial, professional, political, sexual, and medical in nature. Data contained in search-query logs may be far more embarrassing and privacy intrusive than that of the contents of e-mail correspondences or telephone calls. These detailed search records revealed by the companies mentioned above underscore how much users unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use search engines.[1]

See Also

Internet Privacy


  1. What Google Knows