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Careful what you search for

Janet Babin Aug 9, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: You might think what you search for on your computer is between you and your Internet Service Provider. Oh how wrong you’d be. Just ask 657,000 AOL subscribers. You might have seen the other day AOL put some individual searches on a public Web site, the specific terms that customers had searched for. The company’s apologized, but all the information’s still out there on the Web. You can probably just do a search for it. From Marketplace Innovations desk at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin has more.

JANET BABIN: Just about everyone’s made web searches they’d prefer to keep private. All those clicks to rediscover an old flame, or that time you desperately needed information on athlete’s foot.

And staring at that screen alone at your desk can make you think that those searches are anonymous, but they might not be. They’re more like puzzle pieces.

Declan McCullagh with Cnet News dot com got hold of the AOL search records made public on the Internet. He reviewed thousands of anonymous queries. And he believes he could figure out who some of those people are simply by their searches about themselves, their neighborhoods and their relatives. Here’s some of what he found.

DECLAN MCCULLAGH: “Things like illegal child porn, incest stories, preteen sex stories, how to get revenge on my ex-boyfriend, dirty tricks for chicks . . .”

McCullagh says few people realize just how much information can be gleaned from their computers.

MCCULLAGH:“If you’re using a cable modem or a computer at work it’s unique and tied to you for over say a multi-year period. It’s as unique as your phone number, and everything you do with that IP address, that Internet protocol address, can be traced back to you.”

But tracking searches is what keeps companies like Google in business. They relay a person’s click history to advertisers and the ad companies use that information to better target potential customers on the Web.

Richi Jennings is an analyst at Ferris Research.

RICHI JENNINGS: “You know a lot of people think of Google as a search engine company. Hate to burst your bubble but, the business of Google is to advertise to you and be a broker for advertising.”

Jennings says so long as consumers trust the search company they use, their records are relatively safe from prying eyes.

But critics say firms store the data long after its useful life has ended.

Ari Schwartz is with the Center for Democracy and Technology. He says the companies only have a vague notion of what they want to do with all that personal information.

ARI SCHWARTZ: When in reality most of the value to them comes at the beginning of the lifecycle of the information and so we think that it’s a risk to keep this information around because you don’t know what could happen to it down the road.

That road has already led some companies to provide search information to federal investigators in connection with things like child pornography. Schwartz says it’s only a matter of time before individual search records are subpoenaed in criminal and civil cases.

The only way to ensure your Internet search records are private? Consider IX-Quick, the Netherlands-based company does not record who typed in what search terms.

In Durham, North Carolina, I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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