Search Engine Privacy: What the Internet knows about you

When Tim Berner-Lee made his ideas for the World Wide Web available in the early 1990s, he did so with no patent and asking for no royalties. This principle remains the foundation for the free Internet that we use today.

Except, the Internet isn’t free.

[easy-tweet tweet=”The currency we exchange for our Internet services isn’t dollars or pounds, but personal information” user=”oscobo”]

In the modern world, the currency that we exchange for our Internet services isn’t dollars or pounds, but information; personal data that we are handing over in ever increasing quantities. The price that we pay to use the Internet, therefore, is a heavy one: our privacy.

Of course, there is plenty of information that you openly give to Google and other web service providers. Most people don’t have a problem supplying their name, telephone number and address when they sign up for Gmail, for example. However, you are also sharing information whenever you enter a search term. The more that Google knows about your behaviour, your likes and dislikes, the more targeted their advertisements are and the more they can charge brands for them.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this practice is that a lot of search engine users are not aware of exactly how much information Google is harvesting. It’s only by accessing the little-known “Web & App Activities” page that users are able to deduce the data that has been collected. You can delete this information, but only after you’ve ignored Google’s warnings about how it will affect your tailored results. By visiting your “Ads Settings” page, you can then see how Google uses this data to make money. You’ll likely see a number of results that genuinely match your interests, and plenty that don’t. The ad targeting algorithm is not perfect, but it does help them to increase their ad rates compared with blanket serving the same ads to everyone.

Of course, Google is not the only offender. Many other search engines, and indeed web services generally, collect user data in order to sell ads or the data itself. Facebook users can also download a copy of all the information they’ve shared with the social network (from deleted friends to individual pokes), highlighting just how much of our lives are now stored online.

However, not every online search engine collects personal data. At Oscobo we believe that personal data should remain personal. We do not build online profiles based on your behaviour, we do not track your movements and we do not store data on our users. Of course, this means that we do not provide you with tailored results, but in many instances these “personalised suggestions” are simply ways for other search engines to turn your data into profit. Instead, we provide “true” search results based only on the words you type.

There are many reasons why you might want to withhold your personal data – avoiding spam, receiving unbiased prices – but the main reason is simply the protection of privacy. You wouldn’t expect to hand over your phone number, home address and date of birth before using a face-to-face service, so why has this become accepted practice online?

[easy-tweet tweet=”Many search engines and other web services collect user data in order to sell ads or the data itself” user=”oscobo”]

Privacy is important and needs to be protected, even as we adopt an ever increasing range of web services. With so much of our lives lived online, the time is right to find out exactly what the Internet knows about you and whether you’re comfortable with it.

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