Threat to Privacy Online Extends Beyond Search Engines


Google's user privacy policies have caused individuals and businesses alike to focus on exactly what their search queries reveal about them, as well as how to protect that privacy. Last week I had the chance to speak with Lance Cottrell , the chief scientist at Anonymizer. The company, which was recently acquired by Abraxas, offers software and services for corporations, individuals and government entities that want to surf the 'Net anonymously.


Of the need for such services, Cottrell said:

The problem is, searches don't get deleted. Storage is cheap. Some of these search engines -- the specific stat I saw I believe was for Google -- have a log of every search that's ever been done against their system from the day they started. It's phenomenal amounts of information, and you don't know what will happen with that or how laws might change. Search queries have started turning up in lawsuits, divorce cases. You just never know where these things are going to go.

And businesses are just as vulnerable as individuals in this regard. Especially when it comes to tort lawsuits, according to Cottrell:

Let's say you have disposed of some toxic substance incorrectly at a factory you've got, and it turns out that you have in fact Googled safe disposal of that chemical. In that instance, it's a little hard to claim that you didn't know what you were doing.

But search queries within the major search engines aren't even half of the risk for businesses, Cottrell said. Every business with a Web site keeps a log of who visits and when. And if businesses are not careful, their competitors can use their Web surfing patterns against them. Cottrell explained:

If I'm a big airline and I'm going to my competitor's Web site, not only do they know that I'm there, but they then modify their Web site based on the fact that I'm there. ... If I see my competitor coming to my Web site, all the airfares that they download while they're there to look at my prices are wrong because I want to mess with them. Or, if I'm infringing someone's trademarks, I'm not going to show that I'm infringing those trademarks when the guy who owns them comes to my Web site.

Interestingly, Cottrell also said many businesses are as naive about their "privacy" online as individuals have been. I think it's time to open our eyes and be a little more realistic. Practically speaking, using the words "online" and "privacy" in the same sentence is essentially an oxymoron.