CNET News.com is making headlines with their probe into search engine privacy. Equating “trying to learn how your favorite search engine protects your privacy can be as frustrating as a “Where’s Waldo?” book”, CNET were prepared to ask the privacy questions for us. The five biggest search engines – Google, AOL, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Ask.com, received an eight-question survey, to ascertain just what their position is on privacy!
1. What search-related data – including IP addresses, cookie IDs, user identities, and search terms – do you retain?
2. How long do you retain this data?
3. If you retain data for a limited period of time, is it completely deleted (in such a way that the data and backups cannot be recovered, even under court order) or is it anonymized instead?
4. If the data is anonymized, exactly how do you do this?
5. Do you do behavioral targeting, meaning showing ads to users based on their behavior across multiple queries?
6. If you do, is there a way for users to opt out of behavioral targeting?
7. Do you use knowledge about your users (such as ZIP code, e-mail address, gender, or birth date) obtained through user registration to deliver targeted ads on your search engine?
8. Do you use knowledge about the identities of your users’ instant messaging or e-mail correspondents when using those services, or the contents of those communications, to deliver targeted ads on your search engine?
And… here’s a summary of what each search engine had to say about their privacy policies
Search related data (IP addresses, cookie IDs, search terms and user identities) may be retained by AOL for up to 13 months, they do conduct behavioral targeting (and allow you to opt-out of it), however don’t use your registration data to target you with ads.
Ask.com launched a completely redesigned site in June and with this comes some great new privacy features. Ask.com will soon launch AskEraser (maybe by the end of the year), a new system that means users will not have their search data retained for longer than a few hours. Ask doesn’t use behavioral targeting, and do not use your details to serve you targeted ads!
Not surprisingly, the longest, and most ambiguous, answers came from Google! The search giant may keep your search data for up to 18 months; they’re big on developing behavioral targeting but don’t give you the option of opting-out, however won’t deliver you targeted ads in their results.
Microsoft may retain your IP address, cookie ID, and search terms for 18 months, however, they assure us that this information could not be used to identify a specific user. Microsoft users are also treated to behavioral targeting, and your registration details enable them to deliver targeted ads while you’re searching.
Yahoo! can keep your search related data for up to 13 months, and will target you with ads, based on your previous search behaviour. Your registration details (ZIP code, gender, birthdate or e-mail address) can also be used to deliver you targeted advertising, while you are logged on!
I have to admit that I’m not one to fear that Big Brother is watching. If I’m not comfortable with the data that a sign-up, or registration requires, then I simply won’t enter it or won’t register – other than that, I’m actually quite lax about giving my details away. Even so, it is good to know that even the biggest companies are called to account for how they control the information we give them, and if they seem less than transparent about the exact details, maybe that’s because some of it’s private?