The Cookies Know You Be Careful What You Search For
Published Apr 01, 2006In a world of ultra convenience one where information flows at the blink of an eye, from finding scores in the Euro Cup to directions to a Second Cup one can sail across oceans of information to find the shelf no librarian could ever point out. You are privy to a universe of ultra democracy; anything goes and data dog eats dog data in our hyper present. All you have to do is fill out an empty box. Once you do, they won't know you by name, but they will know you.
This article is a reminder. A search engine's input box the field you fill in before hitting "search" is just that, a place for input. As the search engine (and more specifically Google) has become a static destination on the ever-modulating web, its habitual use often goes unexamined. All the while, these doors to data get better and better at watching and recording every journey you make. The more you take advantage of their expanding services, the more they will know about you.
Searching the net seems like a private conversation via your computer to some dumb terminal returning results at the other end. That other end is actually much more intelligent than we might think. The moment you make contact, it passes you a cookie a small piece of code to that gives you a unique identity to your browser. Google and others are compiling a history of your cookie number, your IP address (a unique machine number given by your internet service provider) and every search term you use. Google's cookie doesn't expire until 2038; if you use an upgrade assistant (built into both Windows and Mac) to transfer files when you upgrade from computer to computer, you could be giving them decades of history of your every want and desire.
This information is a marketer's wet dream. From what goods you want to buy, to who your favourite sports team is, to what bands you like collect enough information and they can pinpoint exactly what demographic you fit into, and chart demographics marketers never dreamed existed.
Reacting to your search is just a small piece of the puzzle; that's why the search engines keep offering and acquiring new services. Check out their mapping software (maps.google.com) and you've told them what city you live in, and those you visit and vacation in. Use a price comparison service (froogle.com) and they'll know what products you're in the market for. Grab a toolbar (toolbar.google.com) and you've just accepted the same type of software you've been fighting to keep off your machine. It's essentially spyware redubbed adware; it can phone home and let them know every site you go to.
Perhaps this all seems like science fiction conspiracy babble. But Google has a sleeping giant. For Google's AdSense program they pay other sites to host their ads and most money-making blogs utilise this cash grab. One day you'll visit a website you have never been to perhaps it was an email link a friend sent and as the page loads, your identity will be validated and you'll find ads for services in your city, prices of albums from the last few bands you searched for, and a link to buy hockey jerseys with your favourite team's logo.
It is strange that we live in a world where we increasingly allow others into our private life under the guise of a more convenient existence; all the while, in order to protect "trade secrets," the corporate veil disguises what a group of people do. Of course, just as Air Miles watches its users' spending habits and their users are rewarded with free or discounted trips, there is some trade-off here. Search engines give us a free service that has taken years and hundreds of people's work to complete. However, without analysis our initial acceptance could remain, and our online lives' symbiotic relationship with these search/marketing serpents could morph from mutual interest to exploitation we would never tolerate in the physical world. All it would take is a change to an online privacy statement no one ever Googled. This article is not a call to arms, as no abuses to online identity have bubbled to the surface, but it is a call to awareness.
Watching the Watchers
"Google amounts to a privacy disaster waiting to happen," is what conspiracy theorist website google-watch.org claims. They criticise Google not only for being Orwellian by keeping histories on people, but by being so ahead of the curve and having such a monopoly on the search engine business that they are defining the law of the land by which all netizens are governed. To google-watch.org, Google is Big Brother.
Perhaps that's why the American Department of Justice has taken such an interest in search engines. At a stage when the hands of time and progress are melting like a Dali painting in the hands of surrealist leadership, newly sworn in head of the DOJ Alberto Gonzales requested a list of a million terms entered into each major search engine in an unspecified single week and a million randomly selected web addresses (recently revised to 50,000). Although the RCMP and CSIS aren't as actively interested in getting their hands in the "cookie" jar they use the courts on a case-by-case basis to obtain the right to access the evidence they require Canadians are interfacing with American search engines, so our privacy is threatened.
Gonzales cited child pornography as the reason for this invasive tactic; it's hard to object to that. He promptly got the lists from both Yahoo and MSN. Luckily, Google refused to hand over the information without a court order (the DOJ recently got the order). With the Patriot Act's secret wiretapping in full swing, handing over this data without a fight would set a precedent with wider repercussions. Add to this the fact that email left in an online account after 180 days requires only a subpoena (not a warrant) to be retrieved for U.S. courts, and misuse of the data search engines collect could have far worse consequences than targeted advertising.