google and anonymity


I'm a big fan of Google's search engine, and use it regularly. I also use GMail, and Google Groups, and Google Maps, among other services. But recently I've been thinking about just how much information Google has about me based on my use of those services.

Most of us assume that when we do a search on Google that it's essentially anonymous. But in fact, most people have a small file sitting on their hard drive (a "cookie") that Google uses to uniquely identify them--not just when they're logged in to a Google services like GMail, but all the time. And personally, that creeps me out. The fact that every aspect of my information seeking behavior is being recorded, and that use of that data isn't really restricted by any laws or policies (other than the amorphous "do no evil" mantra) feels...well...icky.

So today I did some poking around, and found a very nice little bookmarklet (basically an "active" bookmark that takes an action rather than simply loading a page) called GoogleAnon that I've added to all of my browsers (with three computers that I use regularly, and at least two browsers running on each, that's a lot of browsers...). The web site explains it in detail, but in a nutshell what it does is replace the unique identifier in your Google cookie with a zeroed-out version. You can still use all the services you'd normally use, but it will no longer associate those with the identifier on your computer.

Installing the bookmarklet is quite simple--just follow the instructions on the GoogleAnon page.

Even if you don't install the bookmarklet, or clear out your Google cookie, it's worth reading through the whole site, and thinking about the issues of search and privacy. There's always a balance to be struck between the convenience and the risk of personalization, and I think we should all be making informed choices about that balance.


And in the interests of fairness, do MSN and Yahoo! do the same tracking?

Andrew, I don't know. I found a web site from 2000 accusing MSN of similar tactics, but that's from before they even had a search engine, and it had limited data.

I also found this article from Wired News, which focuses on Google but mentions MSN and Yahoo (and AskJeeves).

I am not surprised they do that. That does not mean I approved. Even check-out counters at supermarkets logged your shopping behaviours especially if you are using a credit cards?

So, how far can we go to protect our privacy? That I think is the biggest questions.


Nice precis, Liz, thanks.

Andrew: MSN and Yahoo certainly do the same tracking, and more. I included a few references to them, but it's really a page about Google, rather than search engines generally, because Google had the mojo when I wrote it (still does, but less all to itself these days), and because I liked and used it much more than the others (still do).

FWIW, as the de facto repository of too much of our information, I trust Google more than, say, the Yahoo/Kelkoo/Flickr/Overture/etc or Amazon/A9/Alexa/etc or MSN/Hotmail/MS/etc or eBay/Paypal/Skype/etc octopi (partly as evidenced by their past abuses and attitudes). But being the best of a bad bunch isn't itself a very high standard (nor is "don't be evil", it seems to me). And who knows what tomorrow will bring ...


Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

A funny, scary, bit of agitprop from the ACLU on the topic of corporations and what they may know about us.

I am not sure about MSN, but I know many people with Yahoo! and AOL accounts that have more than one account for this reason. They log out of one and login to another. For a few weeks I have been asking about Google and the capability to logging out as Google Talk and Gmail seem to log you in and track everything. I keep hearing concerns from Google tool users that they are unaware of Google's tracking and can not find it in writing (one is a lawyer) anywhere.

With the technical problems Gmail has been having the last few days and the losing of a couple mail items and filtering going flakey I am thinking of undoing Gmail and my Google life completely.

I was amazed at the Symposium on Social Architecture how much privacy came up in side conversations. I was also intrigued with how many people do not fill in registration information or give out personal information to companies. Amazed, I guess, as most of these people have relatively open lives on the web. But, I guess we are all aware of what information we make public and what we protect.

I just recently started using a Gmail account, and to me, its kind of creepy to see their little box ads around the edges. The ads are for subjects related to whatever you are writing about in your e-mail. For example, I am looking for a job, and suddenly I see all these ads for network tech, etc but always the same old big guys. Careerbuilder, monster, etc.
Does anyone else find it creepy that they are READING YOUR MAIL BEFORE YOU DO???
And then want to sell me something based on that?

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on November 21, 2005 11:14 AM.

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