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Privacy – can you trust a search engine not to spy? Featured
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Absolutely not! Personal data is the new gold.

According to self-confessed “privacy tragic and Tin Hat” Greg Lindahl, chief technology officer for US search engine provider Blekko “Google [and many other search engines] collect and keep absolutely everything [your searches, email, social media, personal data, location and very much more] forever in the hope that it will be someday be useful and saleable”.

“If you keep enough history [personal data], machine intelligence can develop a profile. Ultimately your searches will reveal where you live, who you are, what your preferences are, financial status and things you may prefer others not to know” he said.

“Such data collection is all about delivering targeted advertising. ‘Pure’, unexpurgated results are a fantasy – a search engine will always favour paid results. We have noticed that, at least in the US, a Google search for local suppliers [e.g. restaurants] brings back 100% paid results. Where is the fun in that, the ability to discover new places, serendipity?” Greg said.

“Blekko has a different philosophy. Yes, we also need to serve up advertisements [provided by Google or Bing] in order to survive. It is just that we have found that the difference in uplift [extra revenue] between using search keywords and a combination of your personal data is extremely marginal. We simply don’t think it is worth the angst and the risk to invade your privacy” Greg said.

“Blekko was born out of the open source arena so we are more aware of personal security issues. We delete any search requests within four hours – no one needs to know what you looked for” he said.

“At best you find a search engine that delivers less biased results. That has been Blekko’s guiding philosophy” Greg said.

“Google is one of the world’s strongest brands. We simply have to hope that they don’t go to the dark-side and misuse the power and faith that we have placed in them” Greg sighed. I am not so sure that he truly believed that, or he would be working for Google.

Greg continued to chat about the issues and rather than quote verbatim his paraphrased comments are used for the rest of this article.

Why is Blekko different?

  • Spam free results are based on an algorithm and editorial curation that provides a human perspective e.g. is it relevant or is it bogus? Blekko cannot do this for the billions of web sites. Its five librarians can do it for popular ones.
  • Search queries are discarded within four hours. If government wants data they have to comply with court orders.
  • Results are listed by relevance, date etc., [algorithm] or by categories e.g. if you search for a product you want ‘clustering’ like the Wikipedia entry first, manufacturer’s page next, reviews and then finally retailers or on-line stores.

 

Privacy

It is not the job of a search engine to collect information for the government. There must be a reasonable expectation that what law-abiding people do in the privacy of their own home is their business.

Blekko records just enough information to answer your query. It is only used for the benefit of the user to find what they want, not to give paying advertisers unfettered access to them.

Blekko recommends that users turn on all ‘Do not track’ (DNT) options in their browser. In combination with not keeping data it reasonably protects users privacy. DNT is usually disabled by default in most browsers.

Accepting cookies is bad enough but less harmful than installing a toolbar or search apps. Some sites will not enable full functionality without a cookie so clean them out regularly. Get rid of tool bars and suspect apps.

Opinion

Like other more anonymous search engines, Blekko’s search traffic has exponentially increased since the NSA PRISM issues have become public.

It was a good interview and one that was refreshingly frank about the perils of data collection. Greg was not pushing Blekko rather that searchers have alternatives if they want to adopt a more paranoid approach. I will use Blekko over the following weeks and let you know.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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