8/24 Update: Alert reader Tom Maddox pointed me to Bruce Schneier’s (CTO of Counterpane Security) blog post on TrackMeNot – and why it won’t work. Good read. However it appears that Bruce is tackling one problem – protecting one’s privacy on the web – and TrackMeNot is also attacking the search engine’s practice of keeping your searches forever. Bruce doesn’t comment on that piece of it, and I suspect he isn’t impressed with that argument either. It will take one of the underdog engines declaring they will dump everything every 10 days to put pressure on the others. Which search engine will be first?
Nice post in Tom Foremski’s Silicon Valley Watcher called The future transparency of our lives and poisoning the database.
Tom is reacting to the stupid AOL search info release. His first point is that we are what we search, that is, we can be identified by the information that interests us.
His second point is:
Another response is to poison the database, to create a smokescreen, to use aliases/avatars, to make sure that the data collected online contains only a sliver of the real person.
As it happens there is a Firefox plug-in called TrackMeNot that does just that, automatically. As they explain:
TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of indistinguishable ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles. TrackMeNot integrates into the Firefox ‘Tools’ menu and includes a variety of user-configurable options.
Developed by two NYU professors, TrackMeNot is designed to pollute the databases of the big search engines. They argue:
We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance. But what can be done?
TrackMeNot is their answer to that last question.
Your Employment Contract, On-Line
Diane, an old friend of mine from DEC, has a unique last name. Google her name and the number one hit is her employment contract from a Valley software company, posted on a website that mines SEC filings for legal documents that you and I might want to use – like Diane’s $50k signing bonus, $100k relo package, $250k salary, 25% bonus and 150,000 stock options – if we get lucky. For Diane, and her rare last name, there is significantly less privacy than those of us with common names have.
Will Everyone NOT Named John or Mary Smith Please Stand Up
Several thousand years ago many tribal cultures believed that one’s true name was so powerful that it was kept secret. Instead you had a public name, like “Wally” and your deep secret name: “Conan”. One remnant of this belief is the use of an abbreviation for God’s name in the Old Testament, the Tetragrammaton, or four letters: YHVH. Having forgotten the vowels left out of the name we can no longer be sure what God’s true name is. But He is much better at covering his tracks than most of us, especially Diane.
So do your kids a favor and name them something common. Give them nicknames, and then use those nicknames for school and medical records. Teach them to use TrackMeNot on Firefox. Don’t give out their Social Security Numbers, most likely candidate for the 21st century’s secret name. Use nonsense email user names. Create a fog of identity instead of a sharply etched one. In the Google world of never-overwrite-data this will be one of the few ways to maintain a modicum of privacy.
Oh, And One More Thing
Not only is Eric Schmidt a lousy marketer, but his reluctance to do right by users by destroying search records is a deeply stupid decision. It will, I’m sure, bite Google and, more importantly, many users, before it gets sorted out.