How Search Engines Collect Your Information
The internet is essential. People are pretty much forced to use the internet, or they will get left (really far) behind. The problem with this wellspring of information, though, is that big data companies are watching your every move. And some of the information on the web is about you, and could be public if you don’t protect yourself. If you use a search engine, you are essentially painting a picture of yourself for the search engine to use to sell ads.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is an organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world. It focuses on “user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development.” EFF has a team of technologists and computer scientists making tools to help protect users from online privacy and security threats.
The Internet is Crawling With Search Tools
Search engines have planted themselves in all corners of the internet. Even if you think you are safe because you’re using a private search engine, Google, Bing and Yahoo can still track your browsing activity.
Email – If you use Gmail for your email, and search while logged in, you are providing a more complete depiction of yourself to Google. Using a Gmail account lets Google link your search data to your name and email address.
Cloud Storage – If you use a cloud storage program, like Google Drive, Google can access your information. Unfortunately, using these tools makes you extremely vulnerable to hacks. If someone gets access to your email, they also will have access to your files stored in Google Drive.
Maps – When you search for a location on Google Maps or Yahoo Maps, these store your information. Even if you aren’t signed in, the maps provider tracks your IP address, your geographic location, and likely what type of device you used to search.
Search Engines Don’t Give Users Opt-Out Abilities
By using a search engine, you are giving away total access to your data. There is no active “opt-in” process and most don’t offer any way to opt-out of tracking. Without tracking, traditional search engines cannot use your behavior data to serve you ads. And with no specific ad targeting, search engines cannot charge as much for display ads. Search engines get very little value out of users that they cannot track.
Dodging Search Engine Data Collection & Tracking
You can do some research on sites you frequently visit to see if they are tracking you. If you find out your browser is vulnerable, change your browser settings to block cookies and other forms of tracking. You can, and should, use tools like VPNs, private browsers, and privacy-based browser extensions to protect yourself. Google has tracking parameters on 75% of the top million websites, so avoiding these websites is extremely difficult. One quick step to avoid Google tracking your searches, is to switch to a privacy-based search engine.
Search Engines Profit From Your Data
While search engines provide massive utility and value to users, the search engines benefit far more. They use your data for ad serving purposes. In 2016, Google generated nearly $80 billion in ad revenue. Because Google has so much data on its users, and web users in general, that its ad targeting is much more complex than other digital advertising solutions. In comparison, Facebook’s ad revenue in 2016 was $26.9 billion, less than half of what Google made.
Google claims it uses your data to serve you “more relevant” ads and to deliver a more user-friendly internet experience. However, can your experience be truly user-friendly if it is benefiting the search engine company, much more than its users?