Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Hiding your searches (potentially from the government) is not a practical reality as you need to use an outside service to search the internet at all.

I have Windows 7 in my computer and usually use Google to search the internet. I use Mozilla Thunderbird for email. My provider is AT&T/Yahoo. Now, that the government is requesting even more information about searches from Google, is there an invisible way to search without the information potentially being available to the federal government? I've never done anything illegal and I'm not doing anything illegal now or contemplate doing anything illegal, but I just believe that I have right to privacy unless the government has probable cause to allow them to legally access my information.

In this excerpt from Answercast #72, I look at the ways that the government could track your searches back to you on the chance that they would want to.

Hiding your searches

So to be clear, my understanding is the government isn't going to access your information unless they believe they have probable cause. They're not running out looking at everybody's information for the fun of it; they don't have the time - and as I've said, many, many times before, you and I as individuals, we are simply not that interesting. We get interesting when we start doing illegal things or suspicious things, and that's when the government (and potentially rightfully so) steps in and starts taking a look.

That being said, the short answer to your question is probably no.

Online searching requires a service

The reason I say that is because - no matter how you search, you are using the services of a third-party: be it Google or Bing or Yahoo's search (which I guess is Bing now anyway) or DuckDuckGo (which actually uses other search engines behind the scenes).

All of that information about what you're searching for and where you're coming from are logged by those services. And of course, if necessary, the government can subpoena that information and get it from them.

Reduce your footprint

Now, you can minimize it. You can certainly do that.

One thing to make sure of (for example, if you use Google) is to make sure that you're not logged into your Google account when you do your searches.

Google may still however associate the searches with you (for example, if you have ever logged into your Google account from that computer) because of course, it's keeping track of things like the IP address where requests come from.

Hide your location

The other thing (again, depending on your level of paranoia)... the other thing to do is to either:

  • Use an anonymization service (like Tor, I think would be one) which basically routes your request through other services and servers that actually hide your IP address (at the cost of being fairly slow);

  • Or go and use some other computer, maybe at a public library or something like that.

In general, in practice, it's not something I worry about.

I agree with you; I don't think the government has a reason to (or even has the right) to be snooping around in my stuff unless they have as you say, probable cause. But the fact is - I believe that they have enough work to do looking for the people that actually are doing illegal things than to have them worry about me.

So, those are the kinds of things.

I think that the practical reality (in terms of being able to use your computer at home in a way that makes reasonable sense for you) is that it's rare that you would be able to do it in a way that isn't somehow eventually trackable back to you - should the government or law officials in general, request information from the service providers (that you of necessity will be using to do those searches.)

Next from Answercast 72 - "Will Outlook XP Work in Windows 8?"

Article C6055 - November 21, 2012 « »

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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.

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5 Comments
A Richter
November 22, 2012 2:57 PM

I should not underestimate what is going on behind the scenes; it may be enough to search for "Obama birth certificate" to get on one U.S. government agency list or another. The times of www innocence are long gone, and it will only get worse.
On Tor and a few other things, http://securityaffairs.co/wordpress/5650/cyber-crime/what-is-the-deep-web-a-first-trip-into-the-abyss.html is worth reading.

L. H. Glez
November 23, 2012 10:15 AM

.... We get interesting when we start doing illegal things or suspicious things, ...
Very funny Leo. How can they know we are doing "illegal or suspicious things" if they do not spy on us?

I would guess usually by the results of those things, or the accusations of others, rather than spying on everyone.
Leo
23-Nov-2012

Ward
November 23, 2012 11:42 AM

Both DuckDuckGo and Startpage claim they do not log your IP.

Which is very cool. And I hope it both is, and remains, accurate.
Leo
23-Nov-2012

James
November 24, 2012 2:08 PM

Do I think there is spying going on? Absolutely. However, I'm with Leo. I don't think we have to be paranoid about it, unless we have something to be paranoid about.

"We get interesting when we start doing illegal things or suspicious things." How would they know?

I suspect that they have computers set up to "spy" but if you're just doing a regular Google search, such as "how to fix a flat tire" or even certain medications that people keep spamming me to get me to buy, the computer just ignores it. Whereas if you start searching for illegal or other suspicious activities, the computer probably logs it. And enough of those things according to some kind of algorithm puts you into their attention.

David
November 26, 2012 9:07 AM

Never underestimate the duplicity of those who have the power to snoop. Remember the IRS employees snooping through tax forms through the years. Then change the people to those whose "duty" it is to collect information, and who want the power to snoop without warrants. I don't think I'm that interesting, but I have no doubt that certain words that I may put on the Net would provoke a closer examination of my life.

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