Explainers

What Your Online Searches Reveal and Give Away

September 6th, 2018

We “search” to learn. But what are “searches” learning about us?

Most of us generally understand the search process: We type something, and the search engine tries to match it to an advertiser with a related product or service. The more they advertise and the more people search, the more frequently we’ll run across their ads or listings.

But the act of searching raises questions: Who gets to see what we’re searching for? What can they see?  The answer, which we’ve learned from social media terminology, is that it’s complicated. There are some government restrictions over what user data can be provided to third-party companies, but the rest is really up to the search provider and whatever security settings a user can adjust.

Google collects information about all sorts of things, including what you look for, the ads you click on, your geographic location and what device you’re using. It also stores personal data like your calendars, contacts, and uploaded content, plus your demographic info. It maintains that most of this info is utilized to improve its own process and your Google experience, such as finding ads or videos for you based on past searches.

Microsoft, which runs the Bing engine, has similar language, and even prohibits advertising from clients that focus on primarily on data collection or promotional activities. It also requires its advertisers to state their own privacy policies.

Both search services include a variety of opt-in and opt-out settings so users can customize who can access their data. They also each offer confidential browsing if requested, so their activity is not tracked.

One fear that some people have is that government authorities will see everything being searched and track our digital footprint easily. It isn’t as scary as this, but the truth is mixed: local law enforcement will generally have difficulty getting a warrant to access this information from an Internet service provider, but some national agencies may be actively screening search data based on certain keywords.

Privacy advocates expect more discussions on what items can be disclosed and what circumstances users can refuse to share.

. . .