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Word spread last week that researchers at AOL had released three
months' worth of search logs that contained nearly 20 million search
histories detailing the online lives of 658,000 customers. The data
included information on subscribers who used AOL's browser, but not
those who had used AOL's portal.
AOL user IDs were replaced with pseudonymous numbers and the data
was organized by a user's search history. The data set included the
time and date of a search, the search terms and the result, if any,
AOL has apologized and taken down the data, but it is now widely
available on the internet and some have set up search engines that
query the records.
For those worried about what companies or federal investigators
might do with such records in the future, here's a primer on how
search logs work and how to avoid being writ large within them.
Why did AOL release the records? AOL's research arm released the
records in order to help academic search researchers. Researchers
use such records -- known as a corpus -- to test new search methods
I'm an AOL user. Did AOL release my search terms? So far AOL has
not contacted AOL users to let them know if they were one of the
users affected. You can try contacting AOL customer service at
1-703-265-1000, or use this page of tips from the Electronic
AOL says it anonymized the data by replacing the AOL user ID with a
randomized number. Is it possible for someone to figure out who I
am just from my searches? Possibly. Reporters for The New York
Times tracked down a Georgia woman based solely on a review of the
AOL logs. Wired News was also able to determine the identity of one
14-year-old from his queries and knows of one woman who was
identified by an outside party and notified she had sensitive
financial data revealed by the logs.
Why do search engines save logs of search terms? Search companies
use logs and data-mining techniques to tune their engines and
deliver focused advertising, as well to create cool features such as
Google Zeitgeist. They also use them to help with local searches
and return more relevant, personalized search results.
How does a search engine tie a search to a user? If you have never
logged in to a search engine's site, or a sister service like
Google's Gmail offering, the company probably doesn't know your
name. But it connects your searches through a cookie, which has a
unique identifying number. Using its cookies, Google will remember
all searches from your browser. It might also link searches by a
user's internet protocol address.
How long do cookies last? It varies, but 30 years is about average.
AOL drops a cookie in your browser that will expire in 2034. Yahoo
used to set a six-month cookie but now its tracker expires in 2037.
A new cookie from Google expires in 2036.
What if you sign in to a service? If you sign in on AOL, Google or
Yahoo's personalized homepage, the companies can then correlate your
search history with any other information, such as your name, that
you give them. If you use their e-mail or calendar offerings, the
companies can tie your searches to your correspondence and life
activities. Together these can provide a more complete
understanding of your life than many of your friends or family
Why should anyone worry about this leak or bother to disguise their
search history? Some people simply don't like the idea of their
search history being tied to their personal lives. Some people
check to see if their Social Security or credit card numbers are on
the internet by searching for them. Ironically, for more than a few
AOL users, the leak of the search terms means that this sensitive
information is now on the web.
Others don't know what the information could be used for, but worry
that the search companies could find surprising uses for that data
that might invade privacy in the future. The government could also
use its recently broadened subpoena power to get trillions of
records, and any evidence of any crime could be used against you,
even if the reason for the original request was to fight terrorism.
For example, if you use Google's Gmail and web-optimizing software,
the company could correlate everyone you've e-mailed, all the
websites you've visited after a search and even all the words you
misspell in queries. Search histories could also be subpoenaed and
used as evidence in a civil court proceeding such as a divorce or
What's the first thing people who worry about their search history
should do? Cookie management helps. Those who want to avoid a
permanent record should delete their cookies at least once a week.
Other options might be to obliterate certain cookies when a browser
is closed and avoid logging in to other services, such as web mail,
offered by a search engine.
Does cookie management guarantee that a search engine can't string
together a search history? No. If you destroy your cookie and then
quickly get a new one, a search engine that logs your IP address
could easily connect your old searches with your new ones. While
many broadband subscribers have dynamic IP addresses that are
subject to change, these dynamic addresses are much more stable than
most people suspect.
How do you manage cookies with your browser? In Firefox, you can go
into the privacy preference dialog and open Cookies. From there you
can remove your search engine cookies and click the box that says:
"Don't allow sites that set removed cookies to set future cookies."
For even better control -- such as being able to keep certain
cookies and automatically throw away others when you close your
browser -- try the CookieCuller plug-in.
In Safari, try the free and versatile PithHelmet plug-in. You can
let some cookies in temporarily, decide that some can last longer,
or prohibit some sites, including third-party advertisers, from
setting cookies at all.
While Internet Explorer's tools are not quite as flexible, you can
manage your cookies through the Tools menu by following these
Has the government ever requested such records before? Yes. One
attempt was made public last fall when Google fought a subpoena from
the Justice Department which asked for similar records from AOL,
MSN, Yahoo and Google. The feds wanted the records to help defend
an ongoing court challenge to the Child Online Protection Act.
Google largely won that battle, but Yahoo, MSN and AOL all turned
over records to the government.
The government may have also asked for large quantities of search
records as part of antiterrorism efforts, but those subpoenas and
warrants typically come with gag orders that would prevent the
search engines from publicly discussing them.
Have search histories ever been used to prosecute someone? Robert
Petrick was convicted in November 2005 of murdering his wife, in
part based on evidence that he had Googled the words "neck," "snap"
and "break." But police obtained his search history from an
examination of his computer, not from Google.
Can I see mine? Usually, no. But if you want to trace your own
Google search history and see trends, and you don't mind if the
company uses the information to personalize search results, you can
sign up for Google's beta Personalized Search service.
Could search histories be used in civil cases? Certainly. Google
may well be fighting the government simply on principle -- or, as
court papers suggest, to keep outsiders from using the company's
proprietary database for free. But a business case can also be made
that if users knew the company regularly turned over its records
wholesale to the government, they might curtail use of the site.
A related question is whether Google or any other search engine
would fight a subpoena from a divorce attorney, or protest a more
focused subpoena from local police who want information on someone
they say is making methamphetamine.
What if I want more anonymity than simply deleting my cookie when
I'm searching? If you are doing any search you wouldn't print on a
T-shirt, consider using Tor. A formerly EFF-sponsored service, Tor
helps anonymize your web traffic by bouncing it between volunteer
servers. It masks the origins and makes it easier to evade filters
such as those installed by schools or repressive regimes.
The service has its drawbacks. While it can be very useful for a
journalist in China, data services can be slower or have greater
latency due to the extra stops the data makes, and a general dearth
Is Tor perfectly anonymous? No. Computers leak data. Tor,
combined with the Privoxy proxy server (which comes bundled with
Tor), reduces some of that leakage, but still isn't foolproof. But
when used with Firefox, Tor and Privoxy can provide a mostly
anonymous web-browsing experience.
Are there other options? Anonymizer offers a limited free browsing
service and sells software, both of which are supposed to protect
your anonymity but have suffered serious performance issues. There
are other proxy servers on the internet, but you have to judge for
yourself whether you trust them, and some websites actively block
Maxthon Browser, a tabbed browser built on top of Internet Explorer,
has a fairly easy way of surfing through a proxy connection, which
can be useful for masking your IP address and censorware, but the
privacy conscious still need to monitor cookies.
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