Privacy vs. Access: Seven Tips for Practicing Safe Search

January 13th, 2010 |


Jeff Louis is a strategic media planner, brand project manager, blogger, and aspiring writer. He's intrigued by innovation overcoming adversity, survival of the fittest brand, history, reading, and similar fun stuff. He writes for sites and is the Public Relations and Advertising writer for the Chicago Examiner.

Search engines have evolved, make no mistake about it. Where once a search engine did nothing but look for stuff, they now incorporate apps that are moving closer to the realm occupied by social media. Likewise, social media sites are fighting to capture their share of the search market by introducing real-time results. In the not-so-distant future, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Facebook (the biggest kid on the social media block) squared off against Google, undoubtedly the search engine king for the past decade. Unfortunately for us little people, this collision of search and social will lead to serious online privacy concerns.

Which is not to say that users aren’t already concerned about online security. We’ve come to an intersection, and it’s a Catch-22 because we have to give up privacy to gain access. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Lately, many of the privacy issues have focused upon social media sites, their associated apps, and the numerous security fumbles that nearly every social media site’s committed. However, the real “information” is being stored by your favorite search engine.

Five search engines-  Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, and Ask- perform about 92% of all searches, with 49% being completed by Google, 24% by Yahoo, and 10% by Bing. The rest is picked up by AOL (6.3%), Ask (2.6%) and Others (8.5%). The top three search engines also offer a plethora of other services like e-mail, web site hosting, image storage, chat, etc.

If you’re an anonymous person logging onto a public computer, there isn’t anything to worry about as long as you don’t sign into anything. However, since you likely use other services offered by your search provider, it’s a simple task for these companies to keep a record on you.

Most of us are lazy when it comes to online activities; we don’t want to keep adding our e-mail address and password, so we conveniently let the search engine “store” it for us. It’s also a pain in the butt to fill out web forms, but we can save that information in our browser as well, which probably includes your name, address, phone number, and e-mail. Online shoppers can even save their credit card numbers on sites such as Amazon, E-Bay, and others. Thus, many of us have simply given our personal information away. This information in the wrong hands would be devastating considering the fact that most people use the same password for everything and don’t change it very often. Think about it for a second – banking information, credit card numbers, access to your address, phone number, and your personal information.

Yet, Google, Yahoo and all the other companies have this information, and we trust in the fact that they make good hiring choices so that we won’t get ripped off. But, that’s not even half the problem: the other side of the equation is our government who, whenever they have a need, can subpoena our information from our trusted online “friends,” including every search that we’ve ever made.

So, how we protect ourselves? Simple. We can’t be lazy anymore, and we have to take an active role in keeping everything safe from others. Think of the World Wide Web as a dark, dangerous neighborhood full of gangsters. Either steer clear, or go in with some sort of protection and a weapon.

The following tips will help keep your searches safe from unwanted eyes:

  1. Don’t log into your search account.
  2. Keep your email and search accounts separate.
  3. Use a software to keep you anonymous online (Tor) or an anonymous browser (Ixquick).
  4. Don’t use the search engine offered by your IP provider.
  5. Regularly change your IP address (turn off your modem for 3-4 minutes and turn it back on).
  6. Don’t accept cookies from search providers and clean out your cache often.
  7. Disable the auto-complete feature.

Recent browsers have introduced an incognito search mode. However, you can still bookmark files as well as preserve downloads (doesn’t sound too secret…). Google does state that while other sites can collect information about your browsing session, Google does not save the session.

The simplest answer is usually the least expensive and the best answer, so remember that common sense, and a little bit of effort on your part will go a long way.

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Jeff Louis