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Is it a feature? Or an invasion of privacy?

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

One of the extremely common topics I get questions on is privacy. Many people are interested in maintaining their privacy, and others ... well, others are looking to invade the privacy of someone else.

So it was interesting to hear of Google's new "Web History" feature which keeps your search and possibly browsing history not on your machine, but in Google itself.

If you have a Google account such as a GMail account, and you run the Google Toolbar, there may already be lots of interesting information about what you've been up to available for you to look at.

Give it a try right now: visit google.com/history and login with your Google or GMail account if you need to. You may need to choose whether you want Google to track only your searches or your entire browsing experience. That's up to you and it doesn't matter what you choose for things to get interesting right away.

I logged in and was immediately presented with my search history. My entire search history. Since January. Of last year. Including which search results I had clicked on.

I also got to see:

  • Which Google News stories I had clicked on

  • Which "Sponsored Links" I had clicked on.

  • Which Google Videos I had watched.

  • Which locations I had searched for in Google Maps

Google's history also showed me my search activity over time, what my most popular search terms were, what sites I found most popular, and even what times of day I seemed to do most of my searching.

They even offered me an RSS feed of my search history.

Now, it's no secret that Google can, and obviously does, keep all this information. It's perhaps one of their biggest assets. My concern is that with so many people concerned about their privacy that this information is so easy to come by, and is, for lack of a better term, operating stealthily, "under the radar". I've been using my Google account for a long time without any indication or realization that this information would be preserved or ever made available - even to me.

It should be clearer to people what they're getting into when they sign into their Google account.

And it should be easier to opt out of the data collection. Yes you can pause it, but it's on by default. Yes, you can log out of your Google Account, but then all the other services provided by Google are unavailable.

So take care. The password to your Google account might just be the password to your privacy. And for some of you: couldn't this information be made available to law enforcement?

Who knew it might be Google that could become Big Brother.

Let's hope they stay "not evil".

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11393 in the go to article number box to access the show notes and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,100 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3001 - April 22, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

12 Comments
Mary
April 23, 2007 7:42 AM

So is there any way for us mortals to completely delete this involuntary history?

Mary

Luke
April 24, 2007 3:47 AM

Does this do what it says it does Leo?

http://www.scroogle.org/cgi-bin/scraper.htm

blue color
April 25, 2007 5:15 AM

Yes Leo, I noticed the same today. First thing I did was delete my complete history which automatically paused the search (as you mentioned).
This sucks. Google is slowly becoming microsoft.

Shirley Arsenault
April 27, 2007 5:59 PM

i like googles features--i sighned up for gmail, but don't understand it as of now.

Charlie Arehart
May 1, 2007 5:35 PM

Leo, I'll share one observation on this: I, too, have been using google for ages, both for searches and viewing maps, and so on. But my search history only goes back a few weeks: indeed, it's timed with the moment I took an option (offered on the google site, or perhaps an email) to enable the "web history" feature.

I thought it would be interesting to view, and figured I had nothing to hide or be concerned about. I should add I did it as much because it said it would track the history of my web browsing, and I actually wanted that. I find the browser's history interface not always useful.

So, again, until I enabled that option, neither my search nor my browsing history seems to have been tracked.

I'll add, as well, for those concerned about this (and you, Leo, for who it's been going on for 16 months), that perhaps the automatic tracking may be part of the feature in the Google toolbar. I can't recall which feature it is, but when you install it, it too offers a feature that it warns collects info. I had always turned that off when I installed it, as it didn't seem as compelling as the more recent offer of the web history interface.

Hope that helps someone. Thanks so much for your resources. Great stuff. (Hey folks, do check out his "tip jar" feature if you like what he offers: http://buyleoalatte.com/)

Leo A. Notenboom
May 1, 2007 6:13 PM

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Actually there's a subtle distinction:

Search history: probably has been getting collected by the Google Toolbar or
even just my being logged into my googleGMail account without the tool bar. But
that's only *search* history.

When you turn on *Web* history, then with the toolbar installed Google tracks
all the pages you visit whether search was involved or not.

Interesting stuff, eh?

Thanks,

Leo
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Paul Masters
May 1, 2007 11:04 PM

Apparently, all you need do is turn off the PageRank feature on your toolbar:

"You should know: Web History relies on your Toolbar's PageRank feature to send information about the web pages you visit to Google. This information is then associated with your Google Account."

Tom G.
May 2, 2007 6:45 AM

Great newsletter, Leo! I checked and had zero history of any kind at the Google History site. I don't use Google toolbar, but use "igoogle" as my start page and as my primary search engine in both IE7 and Firefox.

I do have FF set up to delete private data when closing and run CCleaner daily as well. I allow cookies, but only save the ones i trust, deleting the others daily.

Tom

Phil
September 30, 2008 11:58 AM

Great article, I too went and looked out of curiosity to see what my history has been over the past few months. What I found strange was that it was very random. going back to March 2007 but only a few entries, manymany months missing in between the sporadic shown months. DI told it to delete everything, does it delete ot from the Google servers too?
Phil

Moshe
May 24, 2009 3:40 PM

I went from the history link you gave Leo and found this message:
"Your web history has been paused.
This service will not collect any history until you choose " I believe that anything or everything I use on my pc can be traced if wanted badly enough, have nothing to hide and can't be worried about it. IF I ran a business on my pc I'd be sweating lead bullets!Probably would need a pill to go to sleep.

Paulino
September 1, 2009 7:19 PM

I have a question. My web history says that I searched for a bunch of stuff that I did not, and
it has been showing this over a long period of time. It's stuff like pokemon cheats, porn and dating sites. Do you think someone has hacked my account? Have you heard of this happening before?

skedge
October 7, 2010 7:01 AM

How about someone posing a real question here? Ok, I will. Can the government/law enforcement say "hey Google, we'd like to do a broad search of your web history database for ANYONE who searched for XYZ whose recorded IP suggests they might have been in such and such geographic locale."
AND must Google comply?

You're asking a legal question, and I'm not a lawyer. I have no real idea, but I've always assumed that a court order would compel Google to share whatever data it happens to have. Whether or not they keep the data you care about is another matter - again, I have no real idea.
Leo
10-Oct-2010

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