By Praveen Kannan and Anna Strokolyst The Hotspot Shield team believes the internet should be open and secure …
Most average Internet users don’t have much of an idea about how different websites track their behaviors, and they likely don’t know how much personal information is tracked and saved – especially by search engines like Google.
Google is still the largest search engine in the world, accounting for more than 64% of all searches conducted. That equals more than 2 billion Internet search queries per day.
With all of those searches and the rapid results that they produce, one major fact gets lost in the process. Google, along with every other major search engine, is saving key information about you on its powerful servers.
These so-called “server logs” contain a wealth of information such as your search queries, web requests, Internet Protocol (IP) address, the type of browser you use, your browser’s language, and the date and time of your search query.
And you might think, “Sure, but they don’t know my name, where I live, or anything like that, right?”
But you’ll be sorely disappointed.
If you happen to also use Google’s other services such as YouTube, Google Maps, Google Plus, Google Chat, Gmail, etc, Google has enough data to know a lot more about you than you think. Not only does Google can tell where you live, it may also know your age, health issues, political affiliations, religious views, and more.
If you look at the list of information that is tracked, monitored, and stored for every single search query, it certainly appears that it could be innocuous—anonymous, even. The reality, however, is a much different story.
The idea is that this information is stored to help provide the most accurate, rapid search results possible. The more a person (or in this case, a company) knows about you, the more efficient they can be in helping guide you to the right place.
Consider your plan to buy a nice birthday present for someone you know. If you don’t really know that much about him or her, then how do you choose the ideal gift? In this case, you’d likely base your ultimate decision on whether it’s a man or a woman, his or her age, and maybe even the person’s profession.
The more you know about someone, the more refined you can make your potential selections for that perfect gift, right? That’s the same concept behind Google tracking and storing your information: it helps them continue to refine their search results in order to best serve you.
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
Google Knows Your Location
Knowing your geographic location is vital to Google’s ability to provide you with good search results. What good will it serve you to have a restaurant in Dubai show up when you’re researching spots for your date night?
Maybe you have the resources for an international night-out, but in most cases, people want local. Storing your location and language makes it easier for Google to do just that.
So how does Google know where you live? Your IP address.
Your IP address is the unique digital address of your personal computer. Your computer, tablet, and even your smartphone receive an IP address from the Internet Service Provider that you use to access the Internet.
Each ISP and the set of IP addresses that they assign to users are specific to certain geographical locations. That means that Google could wind up having access to your home country, state, and even city.
In fact, Google might even have access to your exact home address if you’ve used the “My Location” feature in Google Maps. This revelation can be enough to cause just about anyone who even remotely values privacy and security to take a moment, pause, and consider whether it’s worth conducting a search looking up the recipe for bacon cupcakes in exchange for this type of personal information.
How much are you comfortable sharing with large corporations such as Google when all you really want to do is to find out what movies are playing in your area? This type of sharing could start with just your city or address, but then maybe your name? What about your search history?
There are plenty of people out there who would rather not share their search history with other people, especially family or friends. We view our time on the Internet as private, but it’s not really that private at all.
Knowing the kind of information that Google and other search engines may store is one thing. What they could do with it is quite another altogether…
What Could Google Do with Your Personal Information?
Google was proud of its commitment to privacy and security throughout its earliest years. In those days, the company’s basic premise of storing user information was to make their search engine the most powerful and reliable in the world.
Today, Google uses the information and data about you mainly to provide you with more personalized search results and to serve you more targeted ads.
But since 9/11, the U.S. government has taken Google and other companies to court to gain access to that private, personal information. While their efforts are typically related to specific keywords, such as ‘terrorist networks’ or ‘how to build a bomb,’ the line that shouldn’t be crossed is no longer legally defined.
Taking Back Control
One of the first things that most people ask when they realize that their personal information is not private any longer – even when using search engines – is, “What can I do to protect myself?”
The answer really depends on the balance that you want to achieve between having access to information online and what you’re willing to give up to get it.
Here are some options available if you are concerned about Google tracking you and logging your search activities:
1) Use the Library’s Computer
If you’re really private, you can visit a local library and log on using one of their free access computers to conduct all of your searches. No matter what you’re searching, no one will be able to trace it back to you.
2) Use DuckDuckGo Search Engine
DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine to Google that doesn’t track you when you perform your searches on its site. Furthermoe, it doesn’t log any personally identifiable information or save your search history.
3) Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) Service
Using a VPN service enables you to surf the web anonymously and securely. By accessing a VPN service, you can conduct any kind of personal or private search online without the fear of it coming back to haunt you.
Best of all, it’s easy to use a VPN service. After installing the VPN client in your device, you can connect to the VPN server using your own ISP, and you’ll receive an anonymous IP address that allows you to do whatever you want online without worrying about anyone tracking your online activities.
By understanding what information you put online and who can see it, you’ll be able to take the necessary steps to protect yourself.