Activist group recommends more control over search privacy

Posted by Mark Raby

Washington (DC) - Public policy organization The Center For Democracy & Technology (CDT) has released a report calling for an overhaul of search engine privacy policies.

Once a completely non-glamorous tool for finding content on the Internet, search engines have become the backbone for e-commerce, online advertising, and digital privacy concerns.  A few snafus and an increasing desire for privacy have caused giants like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to come under intense scrutiny.

Each of the three big sites has modified or announced plans to modify its privacy policy within the past year, but activists say there's still more work to do.  Google and Microsoft, for example, plan to keep track of IP addresses that use their respective search engine for 18 months.  Yahoo will keep this information for 13 months.  Individual search terms on all three sites will remain in Google's history indefinitely, but will not link the searches to individual users after the user information is deleted.

As part of the report, CDT says search engines need to develop "new standards and policies that take privacy into account from the beginning."

CDT wants the government to step in because it says search sites cannot be trusted.  "No amount of seul-regulation in the search privacy space can replace the need for a comprehensive federal privacy law to protect consumers from bad actotrs," writes the organization.

For the most part, CDT says long-term privacy is secured by all of the big search engines, as they delete unique identifiers to prevent linking search terms back to specific users.  It's the short term that becomes worriesome, claims the organization.

Specifically, it says, search-based advertising must be closely monitored.  CDT calls for search engines to offer more choices for how their data is stored and used, and that user privacy needs to come first before advertising revenue.  This becomes more glaringly important when sharing data between multiple sites, owned by the same company, opens up new concerns.

"As it becomes possible to tie more and more information back to an individual user account, users should control the correlation of their account information with records of their online activities," writes CDT in its report.