Your Private Life In Search

    November 14, 2005
    WebProNews Staff

A pair of notable observers of the search and tech industries has raised questions about all the private information people enter into search query boxes online.

In the communication world, the existence of Echelon has been rumored for decades. The Echelon network passively collects communications around the globe, in a multitude of formats.

Since it’s existence remains nebulous, Echelon doesn’t raise a lot of concerns outside of the most ardent privacy advocates, and presumably the evildoers targeted by governments that make use of Echelon’s data. Size does have its disadvantages, and the US and others have to know what to monitor to use it effectively.

Most people don’t think much about Echelon, or privacy in general, it seems. Witness the number of college students who will hand over social security numbers and personal information on a credit card application in exchange for a t-shirt or a two-liter bottle of soda.

Do we do the same thing when working with search engines? Rob Enderle wrote about Google’s growing power in the tech world. He touched on the Google Print project and warns that the temporary ban Google imposed on talking to Cnet News during the summer “screams hypocrisy and suggests the needs of customers who are very concerned with their own privacy are simply not important to Google.”

John Battelle follows the privacy theme in a piece he wrote for the Mercury News. Most recently, Battelle penned a lengthy book on the inner workings of Google called “The Search,” and he has an insider’s view of the company that most writers don’t.

Today he discussed the volumes of information that Google, Yahoo, and others have accrued on Internet users. “Put together the bread crumbs we leave as we navigate the Web with the mountain of personal information we’ve posted there, and add to that the e-mails we send and receive, and you have an enormous storehouse of data available to the search companies,” he said.

The process by which the search companies use that data is not merely a closed book, but one that is encased in lead and buried under 20 feet of concrete. Contextual advertising shows only a tip of the looming iceberg. Batelle wrote that we’re “laughably early” in the development of search technologies.

All the major search providers want their users to sign up for personalized search. Give up more information; receive a better Internet experience in return. Couple that with geocoding, the process by which a Google or a Microsoft can determine your geographical location from your IP address.

Geocoding will become more discrete when more municipalities deploy wireless networks. The technology to narrow down a user’s location to a city gets even scarier when it can find out you’re sitting in a particular building, too.

Today it’s not a great concern. People seem to trust the search companies, as Battelle noted. The question is, will they merit that trust in the future too?

David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business. Email him here.