Monday, February 8, 2010

The Importance of Protecting Your Search History

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) correctly points out that Google's Super Bowl Ad highlights the importance of protecting our search history. Watch the ad again if you missed it during the game.

In the EFF's words, "Google's ad during yesterday's Superbowl explained in less than a minute how the story of someone's life can be pieced together from their search queries. Using only the search terms and user's clicks of the search results, Google told the story of a user who seeks love while studying abroad in Paris, finds it, moves to Paris, marries and has a child."

John Battelle has dubbed Google "the database of intentions" due to its ability to catalog our desires as it guides us to what we are looking for on the Internet. Review your own search history. What does it reveal about you?


Deven said...

While browsing around a Google search to find my Google Search History, I stumbled upon Web History, an application that claims to “help[…] deliver more personalized search results based on the things you've searched for on Google and the sites you've visited. You might not notice a big impact on your search results early on, but they should steadily improve over time the more you use Web History”. I explored the privacy policy of web history and found this seemingly soothing note from Google a little amusing: “Web History is accessible only by signing in to your Google Account with your username and password. As long as you don't share your username and password, your web history should remain completely private”. After a few readings on information privacy, any user should know that easily breakable passwords and open networks mean our email is hardly private.

After reading more from John Batelle’s blog, I too am convinced that Google’s maintenance of our search history is “a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends”. Batelle also notes that “Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward.”

What would my Google history reveal about me? I spend a lot of time searching random religious organizations because of my job at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. I also use Google frequently for Google maps and have a lot of DC area restaurants saved on my history. I use Google for everything from running tips, to finding shoe sales to study-abroad research. I also have searched for Georgetown and various offices such as the GoCard office, Financial Aid, etc through Google. I have revealed my location, age, gender, interests and probably loads more. The biggest problem is that Google links my complete Google search history - tagged with my name and personal details - to my Gmail records—meaning Google can create a highly nuanced picture of me.

Katherine Scholle said...

I really love this ad, however scary the concept is. But the thing that really weirds me out is the extent to which I live my life on Google, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Deven talked about the vast amounts of information that she reveals through her searches on Google, and this is definitely something we should all be more cognizant of. But it's also made me think about how dependent we are on search engines, which I always take for granted as something that's necessary for daily functioning. It's hard to imagine how different life before the modern search engine would have been without the answer to pretty much anything you'd ever want to know at your fingertips, usually returned to you in two seconds or less.

Obviously, I consider myself very lucky to be able to do this today. The wealth of information available online is an amazing thing for many reasons. But in some ways, the amount we use the modern day search engine has meant that we don't really have to think for ourselves much anymore. We can laugh about the fact that the guy in the ad searches 'how to impress a french girl,' but people really ask Google for these answers and way worse. (Furthermore, I know I am not the only one who has been extremely concerned for the future of our society after seeing a compilation of Funniest Questions on Yahoo Answers) Why figure out the answer to something when you can just Google it?