FAQ: Protecting yourself from search engines

Sites record what you look for--just ask AOL users whose search histories were disclosed. How to protect privacy?

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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