All major search engines claim that they need to retain personal data, in part, to provide better services and improving results, while also taking countermeasures against web nuisances like click fraud and search poisoning (using elaborate SEO techniques to rank up scam websites on search engine indexes). Even if you trust that search companies will take your business seriously, there are various things you can do to adopt safe browsing habits and help protect your privacy.
Most of the browsing privacy tips we have listed below are straightforward and easy enough to follow without falling into 'paranoid' territory. Others require a bit more knowledge and effort, but will give you near-complete safety. Depending on your particular situation and willingness to accept certain 'risks' in favor of functionality, you'll have to trace your own privacy goals and adopt the ones that won't hinder your browsing experience.
1. Know the rules. If you are really concerned about search engine privacy, the first thing on your list should be to understand the terms that govern each service. This includes knowing what kind of data is stored and how it is used. Admittedly, not many of us are interested in sifting through reams of legal mumbo-jumbo to use a simple search box -- well, simple on the surface at least. We just sit back and let it do its thing.
That said, one factor often cited as indicative of a search engine's stance towards users' privacy is their data retention policy. Google, Yahoo, Bing and most search engines record your search queries and maintain massive databases to improve their results based on what sites users visit after searches, the queries they typed, and many other things. Without this search engines would lose the ability to improve and do many useful things, but it also means that searches referencing your medical history, financial information, political affiliation, and many others are being stored somewhere.
Under pressure from regulators and privacy advocates, Google in 2008 agreed to "anonymize" its search logs after nine months by wiping the last octet of an IP address, so that they aren't personally identifiable. Bing removes the entire IP address, not just the last octet, after six months, while Yahoo beats both with a retention period of just 90 days.
2. Clear and turn off web history. Google has a feature called Web History that automatically saves all of your Internet searches when logged onto any of their services -- Gmail, Calendar, Reader, Docs and so on. The company does not use this data to target ads -- that's stored on Google's server logs which are anonymized after nine months. But your Web History is retained forever unless you turn it off or manually delete the contents.
To do this simply head to the Web History option, click "Remove items" on the left pane and then "Clear entire Web History" on the right. You can also choose to remove individual items. If you aren't signed in to a Google Account, your search experience will still be customized based on past search information linked to a cookie on your browser. To disable this you have to search for something first, click "Web History" in the top right corner of the results page, and choose to disable customizations. You might also want to clear your browser's cookies (more on that later).
Bing saves your search history for four weeks and displays it on the site using a cookie stored in your browser. You'll see a "History" link on the left pane to access this feature, where you can turn it off, clear your entire history, or remove items individually -- pretty straightforward. For its part, Yahoo offers a feature called "Search Pad" that doesn't specifically save your past searches but rather the results you click on after a search.
To disable Search Pad for your current session simply use the Turn Off option from the pull down menu in the Search Pad application that sits on the left side of your screen after you conduct a search. To disable it permanently, click the Options link within any search results page and select preferences from the pull down, look for the Search Pad section and click Edit, then select Off and hit save. Search Pad is actually useful when researching a topic online, as it keeps track of the sites you've visited and lets you take notes. Furthermore, your history is cleared when you sign out or close the browser.
3. Opt out of personalized ad serving. Google and third-parties in its AdSense network use contextual information related to your search, as well as a history of previously viewed web pages to serve up targeted advertising. The idea is to display ads that are more relevant to your interests. You can opt-out or manage your ads preferences on this page. However, to make the change permanent you'll need to install a plug-in for each browser you use.
Similarly, Yahoo uses information about many of the pages you have visited, ads you have seen and clicked, and searches you have conducted to make their ads more relevant and useful. You can edit or de-select categories on their Ad Interest Manager page or opt out of interest-based ads altogether. Microsoft follows the same principles to serve ads and it also offers a way to opt out of personalized advertising on this page.
4. Avoid browser toolbars. Besides clogging your browser's user interface, toolbars may permit the collection of information about your web surfing habits. Watch out for inadvertently installed toolbars when installing free software that you are not particularly familiar with. It's also a good idea to stay away from your ISP's search engines, like search.comcast.net or search.aol.com, as they might be able to link your identity to your searches.
5. Consider using an anonymizing tool or a proxy. There are several free and paid services available that allow you to browse the web without revealing your computer address. A relatively straightforward solution can be to pay for a VPN service like BlackVPN or HideMyNet, which will let you hide your IP address and won't log any of your activity.
Also, by using a combination of Tor and Privoxy (both free) you can encrypt your traffic through a series of randomly selected computers, thus obscuring the source and route of your requests, as well as hiding personally identifiable information. The downside: The Tor network can be very slow. You can find instructions on how to set these tools up at here. None of this can guarantee 100% anonymity, but it does create a strong shield against the most common and likely means of invading your privacy.
6. Flush cookies and clear your cache periodically. Cookies are useful for storing information about a user's preferences when using a particular site, so outright blocking them is far from the best option. But since cookies can also be used to correlate a variety of information related to your online activity some tweaking should be in order. For instance, going to the privacy settings on your browser you can set it to clear cookies and other site data every time you close the program or after a certain period of time (e.g. 15 days). You can also create exceptions to block certain sites and always allow others.
Most major browsers today also offer a "Private Browsing" mode which ensures that web history, cookies and records of downloads are not stored on your computer when the session ends. Additionally, browser add-ons like BetterPrivacy and Privacy+ on Firefox, Click&Clean on Chrome and Paper Shredder on IE 8 can help you delete your browsing history, typed URLs, Flash cookies, and most traces of your online activity to protect your privacy.
7. Use SSL connections whenever possible. A web site using SSL (usually recognized by a web address starting with "https" or a browser lock icon) scrambles your data and makes it harder for someone to listen in on what you're doing. Google added SSL encryption to products ranging from Gmail to Google Docs and others some time ago, but just recently they have implemented it on their search engine as well.
To search over an encrypted SSL connection in Google, simply head to https://www.google.com. Note that the feature is only available for web search, so other search products like Google Images and Google Maps are not currently available over SSL. When you're searching over SSL, these properties may not appear in the left panel.
As for Startpage, this is a search engine operated by Ixquick that doesn't record IP addresses or any other user data on the basis that "if the data is not stored, users' privacy can't be breached." The site returns the top ten results from multiple search engines and ranks them using a star system that verifies which result appears the most on different engines. Ixquick was awarded the first European Privacy Seal (EuroPriSe) for its privacy practices on July 14, 2008.
"Managing your privacy online" is a three-piece series delivered weekly, in which we will have a look at different popular Web services to give you pointers on how to safely navigate through them.
Read Part 1: Managing Your Privacy Online: Facebook
Read Part 3: Managing Your Privacy Online: BitTorrent Downloads
Image credit: Masthead image obtained from gegen-den-strich.com.