With this week's revelation that the NSA secretly hacked into the data centers that power Google and Yahoo users' emails and documents (allowing them to check out users' files at will and without warrants), one is forced to wonder if Americans are aware of exactly how much personal information the NSA might find there -- and how much they agreed to provide.
After all, type anything into a Google search and its auto-complete function provides a peek into the sometimes-dark reaches of our collective psyche -- for better and, more often, for worse. But how does Google start to guess at what you're looking for? By tracking you and all its millions of other users and analyzing the data.
But before you decide it's time to use Yahoo! or Bing instead, you might be interested to know that they're often doing the exact same things as Google, despite Bing's infamous "Scroogled" ad campaign. So if you don't want to let big business -- or Big Brother -- keep track of that which you store in the dark recesses of your brain, what can you do?
First off, read each site's privacy policies. No time for that? Here's the CliffsNotes version of the information that the three major search engines collect on you.
Ready to opt out? Well, here's where things get a little complicated. If you're using any services from Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, you're already giving them at least some of this information. And if you use their services, they all retain at least some anonymized level of information about what is being searched and which results are being selected, whether that's connected to your personally identifiable information or not. And even when you opt out of information tracking for advertisers, you have to accept a cookie on your computer for those preferences to hold. Plus, as all the sites warn, opting out of all tracking might mean your search results aren't as fine-tuned to what you might normally like to see.
While there is no quick fix, if you want to ratchet up your privacy settings for search engines, here's how to do it:
- Google: Log out before searching! This is the easiest way to keep your searches and your profile separate. Next, sign into your dashboard, scroll down and find out exactly what Google knows about you and the privacy settings for each product you use. You can also disable location information and remove your web history. Next, visit your ad settings and see what Google's got on you, what it assumes based on your searches, and then edit and delete as you see fit. Finally, visit the Google advertising network's opt-out page to limit the companies who can place cookies on your computer.
Here's the bottom line: no matter where you go on the Web--be it Google, Bing or Yahoo to search; Twitter or Facebook to social network; or your email provider or favorite shopping sites--you're giving up a little piece of yourself, and sometimes enough to cobble together your identity. At the very least, you are granting access to information about your computer, location and browsing habits, and the more they ask for, the more they can make connections between the real-life you (or others these services think are "you," like friends, neighbors, children or your spouse, when they browse on your computer) and the online you.
When you're shopping for a new phone, you check the specs, read the reviews and make sure you know what you're getting yourself into with a new contract. Going online should be no different. Read Terms of Service carefully, proactively manage your privacy controls and remember that unless and until you've opted out of something, you've most often already opted in.