Internet Privacy Lost In A Blizzard Of Data?

December 22, 2008

computer privacyWhen you surf the internet, it feels like something you’re enjoying in private, but when you realize just how many people are watching your every move, it might just give the creeps and make you mad.

Web searches are the most essential tool for finding information online. Billions of users generate tens of thousands of queries each second, producing data describing the interests, thoughts and behaviors of individuals everywhere.  Most web surfers, however, don’t know every internet question – from medicine to directions to online shopping – is captured and meticulously stored in databases maintained by internet search engines, such as Google and Yahoo.

The companies that provide internet access- like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T – also can capture the same information. Not to worry. You haven’t provided name, address or social security number. It’s all anonymous, right?  Hardly. Every computer connected to the internet is assigned a unique number, called the Internet Protocol (IP) Address, by your internet service provider. Although the IP Address may change, search engines, such as Google, assign a unique identifier called a Cookie the first time a computer uses a search engine.  The cookie remains on an individual’s machine until deleted. Here’s an example what’s kept:

IP Address Cookie Identifier Query Time Browser/Operating System Result
123.45.67.89 740674ce2123e969 http://www.google.com/search?q=cars 25/Mar/2003 10:15:32 Firefox 1.0.7; Windows NT 5.1 Cars.com

Each category provides a tiny electronic building block that can be used to construct a detailed profile of an individual.  The more internet searches, the more data. And, more data translates into a more detailed portrait of likes, dislikes, purchases, finances and habits.

The combination of cookies and IP Address can tie together searches from individual users at different times.  The resulting portrait provides a bonanza for advertisers and a privacy threat for internet users, even if the data doesn’t contain “personal information,” like name, address and social security number.

Take the case of AOL Searcher Number 4417749. The number was assigned by AOL to protect the searcher’s anonymity, but didn’t provide much protection when AOL posted a list of 20 million internet search queries in 2006. Number 4417749 conducted hundreds of searches ranging from “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything.”  There are searches for landscapers in Lilburn, Georgia and homes sold in a particular Georgia subdivision , as well as inquires about several people with the last name Arnold.

It didn’t take the New York Times long to track the data trail to Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Georgia.  Ms. Arnold told the newspaper that she had conducted the searches, adding that she frequently researches the medical ailments of friends and that she loves her three dogs.

The detailed surfing habits of 657,000 Americans over a three-month period released by AOL in 2006 highlight how much people unintentionally reveal about themselves when they use the internet and underscores the risks and privacy issues associated with collecting and compiling search data.

Created by individuals searching the web for everything associated with their lives, the data contain a plethora of potentially sensitive subjects, including health conditions, sexual orientation, race, political or religious affiliation, adult material and criminal activity Once compiled, the information may be:

  • Stolen or publicly disclosed;
  • Linked to the wrong person;
  • Provided to civil litigants in a lawsuit or the government through subpoenas;
  • Shared with advertisers and marketers; and,
  • Distributed to data brokers that specialize in creating detailed consumer profiles for corporate America.

In 2006, for example, the United States Department of Justice issued subpoenas to AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo as part of a lawsuit on an internet child safety law. The government’s demands included several months of internet search logs, which the Justice Department said were required as evidence that internet filters weren’t protecting children from adult content. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo gave the government what it asked for. Google balked, but complied later with a narrow response.

Consumer advocates worry that America’s privacy laws may leave the information unprotected, allowing it to be handed over at the discretion of internet search engines and internet service providers without any legal process. Others worry that as blogs and social-networking sites grow, gatekeepers – companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook – ultimately control who speaks, what may be said and what information is kept private.