Search Engines and Privacy

Abstract

Boswell (2004) explained that search engine is software program that is based on searching the online sites for specific words or a combination of words. Part of such search is for the software to look into its databases for information to find what the users is looking for. Search engine is not a directory of information and idioms, despite the fact that the search engine creates a listing of the sites and indexes their information automatically, and links the pages of the sites together. Search engines are built on complicated methodologies and detailed processes that are usually get updated all the time to help increase the search accuracy, and search performance. The following are the steps that are taken to produce the results that the user of the engine (Searcher) is looking for:

  • The words are typed by the searcher into a search engine.
  • The search engine software goes through millions of pages within its database to find the matches for the query.
  • The search engine’s results will be displayed to the researcher in order of relevancy.

The basic concept of the search engine is a program that can search documents for specific keywords provided by the searcher, and such program has the ability to return back with the list of documents that match the keywords. During the search, the search engine send out a spider (used to feed pages to the search engine by automatically fetching web pages where it can start from any point) to fetch the available documents where another program called indexer is used to read these documents and creates index based on the word contained in each document (Boswell, 2004).

With online activities, online privacy represents big issues, and online privacy laws are in place to protect consumers, and online users. With the rapid changes in technologies, it’s too difficult for the procedures and the rules to be identified, established and enforced. For example, a lot of surfers these days are using the search engines to search for specific subjects online, however, no one knows how much of information has been tracked and collected through the user’s browser, who is collecting the information, for what purpose, and how it was done. A lot of companies are using a lot of statistics tools such as “Clickstreams” and “WebTrends” to understand the behaviours of their clients, however there are a lot of concerns from the internet surfers about their privacy, and how much it is abused (Choney, 2010).

Online Privacy Issues

The power of the Internet is something undeniable, it improves communications among people, expand our education about the rest of the world, and erase physical barriers. It is part of our modern society, and it touches every aspect of our lives and daily activities. However, with the assumption that digital world is protecting our privacy with the same laws that such privacy is protected in the physical world; it brings a lot of disappointments, and increases our scepticism about online rules and regulations. With Internet the policies governing online privacy are underdevelopment, and largely unregulated. That said; the federal government increasingly seeking regulating the Internet, and the privacy laws to protect individuals and organizations (Frost, 2003). 

While almost three-quarters of the Americans consumers expressed their concerns about collecting private information online, the Federal Trade Commission; found over 85% of the sites visited by the consumers are collecting personal information while only 14% had posted via online policy and privacy related notes and awareness among visitors. Despite the fact that there are a lot of effort out there to prevent the illegal use and acquisition of personal information on the web, the increase of security threats and information privacy is going rapidly. Efforts that implements online regulations are not enough to protect online users, and users are very vulnerable to information privacy breaches, and cybercrimes. Users with less experience with online surfing are more likely to be the victim of the privacy breaches incidents (Chai and Morrell, 2009).

Individuals should exercise a substantial degree of control over their data and their privacy information during their surfing online, and it’s a significant factor in online consumers trust. Some organizations and search engines disagree with these facts and arguing that by maximizing the personal information resources will increase the consumers loyalty by enhancing their personal services, through the study of there online personal behaviours and trends. However, online privacy policy (Website privacy statement) is the key for any organizations, and online businesses to ensure that the privacy of personal information is intact during the consumer experience with the site. Such policies articulate the policies of data collections and the protection of user personal information as well as giving the choice to the website’s visitors to exercise their rights to control their own personal information (Chai and Morrell, 2009).

The majority of online privacy policies neglect to articulate the threat that can be involved when providing online private information, and also provide the risk assessment that shows visitors the vulnerabilities of providing such data online. However, many organizations and e-businesses are aware now of the important aspect of the online privacy policy, and most of such policies advise users to safeguard their personal information online, and if any information is collected where such information will be used, and to what extend and for what purposes. Other issues that are declared to the visitors by the web sites privacy policy is the use of cookies for tracking and monitoring purposes of the visitor’s online behaviours. Also, the visitors of sites were not informed with the security risk and threats involving the data transmission and the interception via eavesdropping within the privacy policies (Lichtenstein and Swatman, 2002).   

Search Engine & Online Privacy

Search engines has its own ability track the individual’s searches trends, search terms surfers used, IP address and other information. Surfers might be accidentally revealing personal information through search engines. For example, individual might enter the Social Insurance Number and the name in attempt to find out if the number is exposed online, and as such; the search engine might record the individual’s information. Most of the search engines express their desires to retain personal data in their effort to provide better services to the individuals for the following reasons:

  • By retaining personal information, security threats can be avoided (e.g. IP Address).
  • To keep individuals from the ranking results, and fighting the click fraud scammers.

PRC (1995) explained that most search engines reduced the time required for retaining the personal information (e.g. IP addressed). For example, Bing is keeping such information for 6 months; Google is keeping the personal information for 9 months, and Yahoo is keeping the personal information for 90 days. The fear around retaining the personal information is the misusing of such information, and some of the tips that individuals can follow to protect their online privacy are as follows:

  • It’s a good idea to avoid having the email account with the same search engine site since it’s easy for such web site to relate your personal information with the IP address.
  • It’s a good idea to avoid downloading the search engine toolbars. Most of the toolbars collect personal information, and information about the web surfing habits.

Using browsers is the only way to surf the Internet, and in using the browser for surfing the Internet; it relies personal information to the web sites (e.g. IP address and information about sites the surfer visited). However, each browser gives control over how much information the surfer can give up through the browser settings. Other browsers provide private browsing tool to increase the privacy of the surfer, and purge the traces of online activities to some limits. In the same sense; many websites reserve information about individuals through cookies that will be setting on the surfer’s hard drive for future use, and can be used by the site web server. However, some cookies called third-party cookies which collect information about the surfer to be used later for advertising. Another type of cookies that many sites are utilizing is the flash cookies; which is more persistent than the normal cookies. Flash cookies can’t be deleted by the normal procedures, and options available in most of the browsers (e.g. erasing the cache, clearing history, or erasing standard cookies), and also can’t be erased by the available Anti-spyware software (PRC, 1995).

Collecting Personal Search Statistics

Speretta and Gauch (2005) explained that web analytics applications such as Google Analytics and WebTrends are used to collect; analyze and report of internet data for small and large businesses and organizations. However, with Google Analytics there are a lot of speculations that the free offering for such technology is to benefit their own business objectives, and also a lot of concerns were raised about what personal information such technology can collect within their free analytics services. On the other hand, the description of user interests and user profiles can be used by the search engines to provide the personal search results to the online searchers (User’ preferences). One method are used to collect such information is the proxy servers (e.g. capturing browsing histories) or desktop bots (e.g. capturing activities on the user’s personal computer).

Speretta and Gauch (2005) explained that search engines create their result lists based on web site popularity, and the small amount of information available in the user’s queries, rather than the researcher’s interests, and as such; all users will have the same results for the same query regardless of their different backgrounds and interests. Search engines are using user profiles that can represent specific interest that can help provide a better search results for such user, and also reduce ambiguity in the search results. Many approaches to achieve such goal is by capturing the historical data of user’s browsing and web trends and behaviours through the proxy servers and desktop bots. Other type of technology that can capture such information is the GoogleWrapper, where it monitors the search activities of the users, the historical research queries used by such users.

Conclusion

The Internet is an essential technology that is used in the daily tasks through the personal activities, online business, and organizations. Online privacy policies and online regulations should be implemented and forced to protected consumers and their private and personal information. Despite the fact that many web sites articulated their online private policy many of these sites violate their policy by collecting illegal data and information to eliminate cyber crimes, and control the visitors’ behaviours. Finally, search engines is great tool for online search, however, there are a lot of information that are collected online to optimize and to avoid ambiguity in the search results, and as such; more of the personal and private information are collected that are based on the visitors behaviours and backgrounds, and their web trends that can expose a huge risk for consumers and surfers. 

References

Boswell, W. (2004) How Does a Search Engine Work? [Online]. Available from: http://websearch.about.com/od/enginesanddirectories/a/searchengine.htm (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Choney, S. (2010) Online privacy issues, complaints familiar [Online]. Available from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35427715/ns/technology_and_science-security/ (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Frost, R. (2003) Who is securing your identity online [Online]. Available from: http://www.brandchannel.com/features_effect.asp?pf_id=177 (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse “PRC” (1995) Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely [Online]. Available from: http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs18-cyb.htm (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Chai, S. & Morrell, C. (2009) ‘Internet and Online Information Privacy: An Exploratory Study of Preteens and Early Teens’, Professional Communications, IEEE Transaction on, IEEE, pp. 167, IEEE Journal [Online]. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=4957844(Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Lichtenstein, S. & Swatman, C. (2002) ‘Adding value to online privacy for consumers: remedying deficiencies in online privacy policies with an holistic approach’, System Sciences, 2003. Proceedings of the 36th Annual Hawaii International Conference on, IEEE, pp. 10, IEEE Journal [Online]. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1174470 (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

Speretta, M. & Gauch, S. (2005) ‘Personalized search based on user search histories’, Web Intelligence, 2005. Proceedings. The 2005 IEEE/WIC/ACM International Conference on, IEEE, pp. 622, IEEE Journal [Online]. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=1517922 (Accessed: 18 December 2010).

 

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