Verbatim: Search firms surveyed on privacy

CNET News.com asks AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo what info they could provide in response to a court order. Read their responses.

To find out what kind of information the four major search companies retain about their users, CNET News.com surveyed America Online, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

We asked the same seven questions of each company. Their answers are reproduced below, with the responses sorted by the companies' names in alphabetical order.


AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein

Q: What information do you record about searches? Do you store IP addresses linked to search terms and types of searches (image vs. Web)?
Weinstein: Any time a search is done on the AOL service or AOL.com, the left rail on the results page offers a list of the most recent searches conducted by that user.

Thus, every time a user conducts a search, they automatically see their recent searches on the results screen, or they can review a list of the searches they have conducted over recent weeks by clicking on the "view all saved searches" button underneath those results or on the "saved searches" icon at the top of the results page.

The user has the ability to delete any individual search they have conducted by clicking on the trash icon next to it, or to delete them all by clicking on the "clear all" link on the results page.

Similarly, both the results and "saved searches" pages offer users the ability to "turn off" this functionality with two clicks. If a user opts out, AOL will no longer save or use their search results data. (Users can turn that functionality back on, of course, if they would prefer to have access to that data and the customization AOL can provide with it).

Past search terms and user preferences are associated with the user via a cookie that is linked to the screen name (if authenticated) or the browser, if not.

Given a list of search terms, can you produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or cookie value?
Weinstein: No. Our systems are not configured to track individuals or groups of users who may have searched for a specific term or terms, and we would not comply with such a request.

Have you ever been asked by an attorney in a civil suit to produce such a list of people? A prosecutor in a criminal case?
Weinstein: Although we do not discuss what subpoenas or legal requests we may have received, we could not provide such information if asked.

Given an IP address or cookie value, can you produce a list of the terms searched by the user of that IP address or cookie value?
Weinstein: Yes. But--as discussed above--those terms are also visible to the user with their search results, and the user has the ability to delete any/all of those terms, or to turn off that functionality altogether.

Have you ever been asked by an attorney in a civil suit to produce such a list of search terms? A prosecutor in a criminal case?
Weinstein: We do not comment on subpoenas or legal requests we may have received. However, if the government came to us for records relating to the search behaviors of an individual subscriber, the subpoena would be covered by federal law under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Do you ever purge these data, or set an expiration date of, for instance, two years or five years?
Weinstein: As stated on our searches results page, we currently save personally identifiable search data for up to 30 days. As stated above, users can delete that data at any time if they wish.

Do you ever anticipate offering search engine users a way to delete that data?
Weinstein: We already do. :)

(Editor's note: In a follow-up conversation, AOL added that not only is the information deleted, but backups are not kept either.)


Google spokesman Steve Langdon

Q: What information do you record about searches? Do you store IP addresses linked to search terms and types of searches (image vs. Web)?
(Editor's note: Google pointed to its list of Frequently Asked Questions on Google.com, which says in detail what is collected and stored.)

Given a list of search terms, can you produce a list of people who searched for that term, identified by IP address and/or cookie value?
Langdon: Yes. We can associate search terms with IP addresses and cookies, but not with users' names unless they are registered with Google.

Have you ever been asked by an attorney in a civil suit to produce such a list of people? A prosecutor in a criminal case?
Langdon: We do not share information about that. (Editor's note: Google did acknowledge, however, that it has had legal requests for Gmail e-mail.)

Given an IP address or cookie value, can you produce a list of the terms searched by the user of that IP address or cookie value?
Langdon: Yes.

Have you ever been asked by an attorney in a civil suit to produce such a list of search terms? A prosecutor in a criminal case?
Langdon: We do not share information about that.

Do you ever purge these data, or set an expiration date of, for instance, two years or five years?
Langdon: We keep data for as long as it is useful. There are several uses, several of which are described in our privacy policy and FAQ. There isn't a specified period.

Do you ever anticipate offering search engine users a way to delete that data?
Langdon: We have no plans to announce such a product. However, users can use Google without a cookie.

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