August 8, 2006 5:01 PM PDT

FAQ: Protecting yourself from search engines

AOL's publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users should reinforce an important point: What you type in online may not be as private as you think.

Search engines place a multibillion-dollar infrastructure at the hands of any random user who stops by their Web site. The price you pay, however, is that the company may hold on to your search queries--which can provide a glimpse into your life--forever.

To offer some suggestions about preserving your privacy while using search engines, CNET News.com has prepared the following list of frequently asked questions.

Q: Why did AOL publish those search histories?
A research arm of AOL published the data in hopes the information would help other scientists and statisticians learn more about how people use the Internet. AOL apologized for this on Monday, saying the release had not been properly vetted.

Q: How can I protect myself from a search engine doing the same thing in the future?
Because of the negative press AOL received, the company is not likely to do the same thing anytime soon.

But of the big four search engines (AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo), only Google resisted a Justice Department subpoena that asked for similar search terms. Keep reading for more detailed suggestions.

Q: Why do search engines store what I type in after my search is complete?
No law requires search companies to delete your search terms, and there are some business justifications for keeping them around at least a little while.

For instance, keeping detailed records can help in identifying click fraud (faking clicks on Web ads to drive up a rival's costs), and in optimizing search results for different geographic areas. Compiling a user profile can aid in tailoring search results in products like Google Personalized Search. Also, disk storage is cheap, and engineers tend to prefer to keep data rather than delete it.

But it's hardly clear that a compelling reason exists for keeping older records--beyond a few months--unless a customer voluntarily chooses options like personalization.

Q: Do any search engines not store records of what their users do?
Yes. Ixquick.com, a start-up funded by Holland Ventures of Amsterdam, pledges to do precisely that.

The Netherlands-based company proudly says it doesn't keep records of its users' Internet addresses. In other words, it does save search terms, but the company says it's unable to link them to any person, unique ID number or Internet address.

"I'm a firm believer in the privacy cause," Ixquick.com CEO Robert Beens said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "I can imagine a lot of people are keen on their privacy."

Beens said that "we delete the (Internet protocol) address of users. We have a program running which opens the log files and deletes the user IP addresses and overwrites them." And, Beens said, the company removed the unique ID from Ixquick.com's cookies.

Q: Is AOL thinking of doing the same thing?
Nobody knows. But Jason Calacanis, who co-founded blog publisher Weblogs Inc., which AOL bought last year, says it should.

In a blog post on Monday, Calacanis wrote: "Frankly, I want us to NOT KEEP LOGS of our search data. Yep, you heard that right... we shouldn't even keep this data."

Q: How does Ixquick.com work?
Ixquick.com is what's known as a meta-search engine. For U.S. queries, it contacts Yahoo, AltaVista, Alltheweb, Entireweb, Amazon, Netscape, Wikipedia and a handful of other sites. It compiles the results, decides which Web sites received the most votes as relevant, and displays the top scorers.

"It is possible to fool one search engine by modifying the links, tags, or content of the site," Beens said. "To fool 11 search engines is very hard."

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20 comments

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Ixquick.com as Meta-Search... come on
I would hardly classify Ixquick.com as a meta-search engine. Most of the results are generated from PPC search engines. Even though the site is putting the results from sponsored search separate it still gives you results from PPC engines like overture and always chooses to link to the site using PPC engine and not an organic result URL.
Posted by far_desi (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Unclear on the concept
The writer needs more familiarity with the issues involved. He
says about Ixquick:

"The Netherlands-based company proudly says it doesn't keep
records of its users' Internet addresses. In other words, it does
save search terms, but the company says it's unable to link them
to any person, unique ID number or Internet address."

"'I'm a firm believer in the privacy cause,' Ixquick.com CEO
Robert Beens said in a recent interview with CNET News.com"

Beens, too, is unclear on the privacy concept. As the AOL
scandal showed, just the list of searches alone can be enough to
identify who is searching. AOL released no more info than Beens
collects, yet it was enough to reveal the searcher's identity.

NONE of these people - and that includes reporters - can be
trusted to have thought the privacy issue through and have a
competent grasp of culture, technology, legality, and yes,
mendacity.
Posted by reybar (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A very clear concept
Dear Reybar,

Your comment is not correct.
Just a list of searches alone can not breach your Privacy.
AOL released not only search terms, but also unique 6 or 7-digit user numbers.
These user numbers made it possible to combine the otherwise completely random search terms into unique user profiles.
Without this "glue" ,the millions of individual search terms would have been relatively harmless.

Since Ixquick.com deletes its user's IP address from its log-files there simply is no "glue" to build a user's profile.
This safeguards the Privacy of Ixquick.com users.
Posted by Robert E.G. Beens (3 comments )
Link Flag
Thanks Reybar and Mr. Beens.

I believe Reybar's concern is valid. Why does a search engine need to save serch terms at all? If there is a list of an anonymous person's search terms, there is a way to find out who those belong to; MSNBC did that and found a person based on only search terms with no user identifiable information at all (no ip address, name, or anything).

The solution to a true anonymous search engine is a search engine that doesn't save search terms or pages visited.
Posted by mdcnet87 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Easy, don't use AOL
Anyone who is stupid enough to use AOL deserves to have their search history posted anyways.
Posted by bobby_brady (765 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Privacy notme.com
Complete privacy and security at the website visted, they have no way of identifing you, nor any way to pass Cookies, Trojans, a Virus or any kind of Spyware to you.

Complete privacy and security from any PC or device connected to the internet that you happen to be using at the time with absolutely no way for the PC to track where you have been.

Complete privacy and security on your credit card statement.

And, there is absolutly no software needed, it is ISP based, so it works from any and all PC's today!


This new Patented technology is an "Indirect Portal", not a proxy, an will change how users surf the internet forever. Why? You need to do nothing except surf from NotMe when you want complete and utter privacy. The way the internet used to be way back when.
Posted by Steve Hirst (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Privacy notme.com
Complete privacy and security at the website visted, they have no way of identifing you, nor any way to pass Cookies, Trojans, a Virus or any kind of Spyware to you.

Complete privacy and security from any PC or device connected to the internet that you happen to be using at the time with absolutely no way for the PC to track where you have been.

Complete privacy and security on your credit card statement.

And, there is absolutly no software needed, it is ISP based, so it works from any and all PC's today!


This new Patented technology is an "Indirect Portal", not a proxy, an will change how users surf the internet forever. Why? You need to do nothing except surf from NotMe when you want complete and utter privacy. The way the internet used to be way back when.
Posted by Steve Hirst (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
password thieves
they just log all your information and sell it to hackers
Posted by baswwe (299 comments )
Link Flag
notme.com is rabbit hole
You don't even give a decent link! If this thing is so great, then WHERE is a DECENT link to it? If it's not just FUD, then cough up the LINK. :|
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
Use a search proxy and forget about it
Search proxies rock and they dont allow the engines to collect your data so theres nothing to report on.

Try it its free anyway. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.blackboxsearch.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.blackboxsearch.com</a>
Posted by talledega500 (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Use a search proxy and forget about it
The only way around this privacy stuff is to use a search proxy. The engines cant collect or report on anything that way.

And its FREE. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.blackboxsearch.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.blackboxsearch.com</a>
Posted by talledega500 (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
proxy's are useless ...
they do nothing to the PC. The history in the PC is recorded all over the place. Proxy's don't address that. You can erase everything, buy a program that will clean the PC out... but you can't do that from work, or your friends lap-top. A 'Indirect Portal" leaves no trace anywhere Period without any pain... not even a need to set IE Explorer to accept proxy's. THE USER DOES NOTHING except surf from notme.com from whatever PC they happen to be on at the time... Complete Stealth both sides. The history records
notme.com/getme:url13567.aspx When U close the page the link recorded is expired. The site visited has zero clue who you are... and zero way of identifying you. You don't even need virus protection nor spyware protection... can't get one =)

Proxy's are a joke...an Indirect Portal is the only way of achieving Complete Internet Stealth. notme.com to find out more...
Posted by Steve Hirst (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
proxys work
The info that was handed to the govt by all the major search engines without your consent, and the info AOL published has nothing to do with YOUR local PC. It has to do with network based data collection.

Proxies dont keep someone from breaking into your house and your computer. They keep you from unwittingly participating in a fight for your personal information surrendered without you knowing it over a network.
Posted by talledega500 (23 comments )
Link Flag
AOL is doomed...
I downloaded their free AOL, it installed a ton of unwanted crap, slowed my computer to a crawl and then it started to lock up.

I uninstalled everything and am never using AOL.

That company screwed up majorly. I would fire all the company executives who are reposible for these problems on the spot immiediately and the dumb ass CEO.
Posted by rmiecznik (224 comments )
Reply Link Flag
and the coolest part
If you use NotMe to break any laws Period, we will identify you in a snap.Think g-mail. Its important the users, normal people who want to do nothing... but, expect total privacy and security have an outlet for it. This technology is ISP based, works from anything you have connected to the net and is simple to use and totally effective.

Why does a normal person need to worry about getting information they deem sensitive. They do, and many people do not want AA or The Herpes Cafe or the Aids Hotline or RAINN in their histories yet need the help desperately...

done

Notme.com go wherever you want and no one will ever know, unless you break the law...
Posted by Steve Hirst (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
IP's Are Often Static
If you use a router and you don't turn it off and have Comcast it's likely you will have the same IP for years. You don't need to be on some special network. If you go into your router and change the MAC address you will get a new IP. Some routers allow you to copy the MAC address of your PC's NIC instead of sending the MAC address of the router. Comcast will then give you a different IP.
Posted by good_nicks_taken (56 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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