How to Keep Your Search History Private

By Wendy Cooper
Wendy Cooper
Wendy Cooper
Wendy Cooper holds a law degree and lives in Michigan but dreams of becoming a California gal. She has written articles for the American Bar Association Health Care section, the Ann Arbor News, and online blogs. She can be reached at her Facebook page or on Twitter @WendyBCooper. She also writes for www.quietmike.org.
May 27, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

It is no secret that if you use Google, Yahoo, Bing or most other search engines that your queries are tracked and recorded. Under the Patriot act the records kept by each company can be easily obtained by the National Security Agency (NSA). However, there is an easy solution out there to prevent your search history from being tracked and recorded.

When a search is performed by one of the above companies it will record your IP address and search terms. It will then maintain that data for an undisclosed time. If you should happen to be logged into an account on the search engine more sensitive information can be combined with your search query. According to the ACLU, Google reported that it was required to hand over information on 42,648 users’ accounts to the Feds in the last half of 2013.

While everyone expects some sort of privacy assault these days there are steps you can take to prevent search queries from falling into the wrong hands. Considering that our search queries can reveal our most intimate selves it just makes sense to take a few extra minutes to protect our information.

Keep your search history private

Before I talk about how to protect your online privacy here is just one example of how easy it is for someone to discover your identity using just your search queries. AOL, in 2006, provided researchers with large sets of data that had been conducted on its sites. Each search query was assigned an arbitrary number and scrubbed of any identifying markers. All searches by the same user were grouped together. The New York Times reported it had no trouble quickly identifying the searchers through the content of their searches.

The Times article singled out user no. 4417749. This user conducted hundreds of searches over the three-month period the data was collected. From “numb fingers” to “60 single men” to “dog that urinates on everything” each search led to a 62-year-old widow named Thelma Arnold who lives in Lilburn, GA. Even though AOL apologized and removed the records copies are still circulating on the web today.

Keep Your Search History Private  

One way to prevent this type of invasion is through a “privacy-protected search engine.” Several engines provide this service including GoDuckGo, which promises it will not store any information that will create a trail leading back to you. I tested both Google and GoDuckGo by searching for my name and hometown. There was a slight difference in results and this may be because Google knows that I am performing the query (and responds by filtering out inconsistent results).

One plus side to using a service such as GoDuckGo is that results will not be put into a “filterbubble”  and you get the same results as anyone else. The filterbubble  is something used to tailor results to you based on your interests. So, as a result, you get more and more of the stuff you like and never know what you might be missing. Outside of the filterbubble you are assured of getting the same results everyone sees.

Remember, as noted by the ACLU, that any company served with an order under the Patriot Act to retain user information and turn that information over to the NSA is required to do so. According to the ACLU any spyware, or browser you are logged into, may maintain a separate record of searches.

Wendy Cooper
Wendy Cooper holds a law degree and lives in Michigan but dreams of becoming a California gal. She has written articles for the American Bar Association Health Care section, the Ann Arbor News, and online blogs. She can be reached at her Facebook page or on Twitter @WendyBCooper. She also writes for www.quietmike.org.