Internet Privacy & Browsing History

The other day a friend phoned and we got sidetracked into talking about Internet privacy. Or, rather, lack thereof. I hadn’t thought about it too much except that, by instinct, I don’t like social networking sites.

A young friend once asked me to join Hi5 and I lasted about a minute. As soon as I signed up she started telling stories about me to sixty people I’ve never met. I quickly excused myself by deleting my account. I’m just not that sociable.

Then there’s the common issue of tracking web traffic that happens through individual websites and on a larger scale through the search engines.

As most webmasters do, I use StatCounter to track visitors to my website. It tells me all kinds of things that I don’t need to know. What cities and countries you live in (or rather where your ISP’s live, or thereabouts, which is often not even close. According to the map my cousin, Sam, lives half a mile out into the Pacific Ocean.)

It tells me what keywords people type into the search engines that land them on my site. It tells me the pages that people read the most and what kind of web browser you’re using. I don’t save any of this information. I rarely even look at it because I don’t need what it’s telling me. It’s on a continual scroll, adding to the top and falling off the bottom.

I’d never thought about it as an Internet privacy issue until my friend called. (She’s got stories about genetically-modified food and chemicals in fabric, too, that go way into the early hours of the morning.) I’ve just been grateful that StatCounter lets me know that people actually visit my site and read my blog because if y’all didn’t I could stop talking to myself. When the visitor count hits zero, it’s over.

It varies but here’s a typical breakdown of where JGEN traffic comes from:

Which brings me to the search engines. As far as they go, StartPage describes the common collection of data like this: people’s search terms, the times and dates of their visits, what links they had chosen to click on, their IP addresses, and their user ID cookies.

The reason for doing this: “It doesn’t cost much, it’s very easy to do, and the data may come in handy in the future”.

What ominous thing does that suggest? –  “may come in handy in the future”. My friend could be a tad paranoid, but this is how she sees it. Let’s say you’re researching the subject of depression. Who knows why someone would be doing that; maybe it’s a kid writing a paper for school. But the next thing you know your car insurance rates go up because ‘they’ think you might be suicidal.

Just imagine: a profile developed on you from a list of everywhere you’ve ever been online since the beginning of time and analyzed to mean…what? It makes me look over my shoulder. Where have I been? What do they think they know?

There’s a couple of search engines that do not collect your browsing history. One is called StartPage. Here’s their privacy policy:

  • No recording of users’ IP addresses.
  • No identifying cookies.
  • No collection of personal data.
  • No sharing personal data with third parties.
  • Offering secure, encrypted connections (HTTPS/SSL)
  • And a full proxy service to be launched in January 2010

Here’s how StartPage works. As an example, these are the search results for JGEN.

StartPage Search Results

My site is listed #1 with six stars; one star for each search engine where JGEN is listed in the top 10 search results. Just like in Grade school; the person with the most stars wins.

What this means is that instead of being positioned on Google, for instance, by Google’s specific algorithm (think: Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret sauce) my position is determined by the combined weight of several different search engine algorithms. It seems to me that would be more accurate being based on the broader vote.

If you’re interested, head over there and give StartPage a chance. They don’t have all the razzle-dazzle of Google but they do have a Phone Directory and Video Search. An email service is coming.

Google is not the be-all and end-all of web search. Google has to collect user-data because they have a gazillion dollar ad network based on that information. They know exactly how many people searched for ‘blue widgets’ in January and where in the world they live. StartPage doesn’t have their own ad network. Google pays them to be able to run three ads per page. They don’t need your browsing history. So, have a look and see how it feels to do a web search without someone looking over your shoulder.

And don’t worry about StatCounter. All I’ve gleaned from three years of statistics is that EverNote 2 and KeePass are the most popular topics on JLog.

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