Searching for privacy

BY J. CARLTON COLLINS, CPA

Q: I’ve heard that search engines such as Google and Yahoo! keep a record of your searches and the websites you visit and that they often share this personal information with other companies. I don’t do anything illicit on the internet, but I’m still not comfortable with these search engines recording my every move. Are there any measures I can take to keep my searches and internet browsing more private?

A: You’ve heard correctly; many of the popular search engines keep track of your every search and then effectively sell that information to advertisers so they can specifically target you according to your digital profile. Microsoft Bing (bing.com) reportedly keeps your search data for 18 months, as does Yahoo! (yahoo.com), but apparently Google (google.com) plans to retain your search data indefinitely. Even if these search engine companies do nothing intrusive with your search history data, they may be targeted by external hackers as high-value loot. Your search history data might also be vulnerable to internal employees seeking to resell them on the black market. Consider that just last year, Edward Snowden, a contractor working for the National Security Administration, was able to steal large volumes of sensitive data from the highly secretive organization. If one of the world’s most secure organizations is unable to protect its data, why should we expect other organizations to do so?

The good news is that there are reasonable, proactive measures you can take to protect your internet activity. Specifically, the following two solutions claim to help prevent your internet searches and browsing activities from being tracked.

1. DuckDuckGo ( duckduckgo.com ) (free). This search engine claims it doesn’t track who you are or save any search data, so your search privacy is more assured, and the result is far less spam and clutter. On the negative side, DuckDuckGo does not report how many search results it finds, but it otherwise operates similar to the more popular search engines. Similar solutions are available at startpage.com and ixquick.com.

 

2. Disconnect Search ( disconnect.me/search ) (a voluntary payment of $10 is requested but not required). This tool works differently from DuckDuckGo in that it installs an app on your computer that allows you to use Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and other popular search engines without revealing to those search engines who you are. Disconnect currently works with the Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari browsers. In addition to privacy, Disconnect’s other benefits are as follows:

Disconnect

a. Secure Wi-Fi connections. A secure Wi-Fi checkbox lets you prevent wireless eavesdropping by forcing websites to encrypt your data connection, when possible.

b. Blocks tracking. Disconnect can prevent more than 2,000 third-party websites from tracking your online activity; a toolbar button at the top of your browser keeps track of the number of tracking requests blocked, so you can see the product working to protect you.

c. Surf faster. Because unwanted tracking is blocked, websites load an average of 27% faster, Disconnect claims.

d. Unblock wanted websites. A dropdown option allows you to unblock companies in case you want them to track you—such as a shopping website you frequent, for example.

e. Blocking options. Disconnect can block popular tracking websites, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, or it can block categories of tracking websites, such as social media.

f. Dashboard summaries. A dashboard summarizes the time and bandwidth Disconnect saves for each webpage you visit, as well as the number of Wi-Fi requests that the product secured.

J. Carlton Collins ( carlton@asaresearch.com ) is a technology consultant, CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.

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