What Search Sites Know About You


By Joanna Glasner
For most people who spend a lot of time online, impulsively typing
queries into a search engine has become second nature.
Got a nasty infection in an embarrassing spot? Look up a treatment on
your favorite search site. Obsessing about an ex? Try Googling his or
her name. Chances are the queries will unearth some enlightening
information.
But while search engines are quite upfront about sharing their
knowledge on topics you enter in the query box, it's not so clear what
they know about you. As operators of the most popular search engines
roll out more services that require user registration, industry
observers and privacy advocates say it's become more feasible to
associate a particular query with an individual.
"You should think about what you put in that search box, because it
may not be as anonymous as you think," said Danny Sullivan, editor of
SearchEngineWatch.com.
It has long been standard practice, Sullivan noted, for search sites
to employ cookies, which track activity on a computer's internet
browser. But cookies don't identify a person by name. If two people
access a site on the same browser, the cookie wouldn't distinguish
between them.
However, when people provide personal information to register for
services offered by search engine companies, such as free e-mail
accounts, news alerts or personalized homepages, they're no longer
anonymous.
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