No privacy for search histories

Search engines, including Google, AOL, MSN and Yahoo, keep records of each search performed and
and can associate each one with an IP address and possibly also a cookie. It appears that the search
engine companies can be compelled to provide this information to the US government when it may be
pertinent to a prosecution, and it appears that AOL, MSN and Yahoo
(but not at this stage, Google
) are willing to hand over masses of this data on request.

Not all search engines keep quite the same information or have quite the same ability to search it, but
Google, for example says that it keeps
date, time, search terms, IP address, and browser. If you haven’t barred cookies from Google it will keep
a record of your identifying cookie too. Google and most other search engines can return a list of people
who searched for given words (identified as above) as well as all the searches done by a particular person.
The search engines are also aware of what links you click on from a search result page, and probably also
store this information.

Search Engine Watch has
a story on what strategies you can use to keep some privacy, but it boils down to the following:

  1. Make sure to turn off cookies from the search engine you use.
  2. Use an anonymizer, such as The Cloak

Bear in mind that using an anonymizer only protects you in the search term–>user direction, not
in the user–>search term direction, because your ISP (unless it’s me
probably keeps records of when you were online and to where you sent and received packets.

The current state of play seems to be:

  • Google refuses to hand over bulk information on the grounds that it’s onerous and gives away
    commercial secrets, when the DOJ is going on a “fishing expedition” rather than following up on an
    actual crime. They are fighting a subpoena in the courts.
  • There is no protection of privacy in this area, and some
    moves to provide it seem
    doomed to fail.
  • AOL, MSN, and Yahoo had handed over the information, no questions asked, without even letting
    anyone know this was going on.
  • It appears likely that this sort of information will be routinely requested by lawyers in everything
    from divorce cases to unfair dismissal cases.
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