Category Archives: privacy

“Do not track” does not mean anonymous browsing

A question that I’m often asked is “do search engines that don’t track your search history also anonymize your IP address?” DuckDuckGo is the first search tool that often springs to mind with respect to “do not track”.  It does not store searches, web history or IP addresses when you use it to search. Also, it does not pass on the search terms you used to the sites that you visit. However, the sites that you visit will still be able to see your IP address.  See for further details.

Ixquick ( and StartPage ( are similar but have an additional feature that gives you the option to display a page from the results list using a proxy. Run the search as normal and you’ll see the usual set of results. Next to each result you should see a “proxy” link. Click on that and you go through a proxy server making you invisible to the website you are visiting.


Any links that you subsequently click on and which are on the same site also go through the proxy. As soon as you follow any links that take you off that site then you are warned that you that you will be “unproxied”.


The disadvantages of using the proxy option are that it can be slower, some functions on the page may not work, and I have come across some pages that do not display at all.

Google search to get more personal

Google search is about to get even more personal – possibly. If you are signed in to your Google account and search, Google includes and highlights content from people in your networks. This has been available for some time but a couple of months ago Google launched a field trial that added your Gmail to the search mix, and a few days ago they added documents from Drive. You have to request to be added to the field trial and it only works on If you are interested in trying it out you can signup at

Above your results tells you how many personal and other results have been found. A head and shoulders icon next to a result indicates that it is from someone in one of your networks. Click on the number of personal results to see just those. Across to the right there are a head and shoulders and world icons. If you want to hide the personal results click on the world icon. If you have searched on a person or an organisation their Google+ profile, if they have one, is shown to the right of the screen. Above this, any messages or documents in your Gmail and Drive that match your search are displayed.

Google Field Trial - Gmail and Drive

I have mixed feelings about this. At first I was very much against the integration of personal posts and data with general search. If I want to search Google+ I’ll do it within Google+, and similarly I go into Gmail if I want to search my email. However, I would not routinely do that for research projects and during this field trial I have sometimes found useful information in my Google+ circles, giving me a very different view of the topic/person/organisation I am investigating. The question then is can I pass this on to a client or include it in a report? The answer is not straightforward. If the Google+ posting has been made public and not restricted to a circle then yes. Otherwise I would have to obtain the person’s permission to use it or pass it on. With Gmail I would have to obtain permission from all the parties concerned and I would also need to check the ownership of any documents identified within my Drive.

I can clearly see and understand the difference between public and private search results as I am sure all information professionals and many researchers can, but I do wonder about other Google users. “It’s come up in a Google search so I’m free to use it as I want”. It could be argued that you shouldn’t put anything up on Google+ unless you don’t mind it going public, even if you have restricted it to a small circle of contacts but email should remain private and be kept out of general search results. I can see legal actions looming!

This is a limited field trial, though, so not everyone who uses is seeing the Gmail and Drive results yet. If you do take part in the trial and have any concerns about how it works and potential privacy issues, there are feedback links next to the Gmail and Drive results. Use them!

Presentation: Search Turns Social – Resistance is Futile

The presentation I gave to CILIP in Hants & Wight yesterday (Search Turns Social – Resistance is Futile) is now available on authorSTREAM at

It is also available on Slideshare at and temporarily on my web site at

Removing information about you from Google

A question that I am often asked during my workshops is how can one persuade Google to remove a page or information from the web. Sometimes the person wants personal photos or videos to be removed or they are asking on behalf of a company who wants less than flattering comments and opinions deleted. In most cases Google does not control the content put up on web sites or social media, it merely indexes it. So the short answer is that you cannot make Google remove information you do not like except in very specific circumstances, for example copyrighted material on YouTube, images of you or your house on Street View.

“Removing Your Personal Information From Google” is an excellent overview from Search Engine Land of how you should go about having sensitive information removed (if possible) and dealing with negative publicity. Your first move is to contact the web site owner yourself but unless the information is libellous, breaches copyright or data protection laws you might not have much luck. Suing the web site owner is an option but you could end up generating even more bad publicity for you and your organisation. Swamping out the negative information with your own positive responses is by far the best approach and one that requires you to know how to use social media.

The oft cited example of  how not to tackle bad publicity is that of Nestle. (Just Google Nestle social media fail or Nestle social media disaster.) “Nestle fails at social media – Attempts to censor Facebook” from TechEye is a neat summary of the events. There are also umpteen Slideshare presentations on how Nestle “did it wrong”. Many people have forgotten or never knew what the original argument was about, but after the social media debacle the perception of Nestle as corporate bad boys was reinforced.

The Search Engine Land posting has links to other articles offering sound advice on the topic including:

The Real Lesson In the Yelp User Review Lawsuit


Official Google Webmaster Central Blog: Managing your reputation through search results (I love the bit “.. don’t assume that just because your mom doesn’t read your blog, she’ll never see that post about the new tattoo you’re hiding from her.“)

What Google knows about you (2): check your ad preferences

You may find advertisements on search results pages irritating but the search engines go to a lot of trouble to ensure that the ads you are exposed to match the content of your search and the sites that you select. Google stores this information in your ad preferences and allows you to view and edit them. You think you don’t have any just because you don’t click on ad?  Then check out

It does not matter whether or not you are logged in to your Google account because the information is stored in cookies associated with your browser. If you use more than one browser, each will have their own set of preferences that have to be viewed from within the browser. This has implications if you conduct confidential research and others have access to your computer. You might be deleting your search history but it is still possible to get a general idea of what areas you are working on. Your ad preferences also affect advertisements that Google shows on other websites for which it provides advertisements, for example YouTube, news sites and blogs.

You can remove or add an interest category, or opt out altogether from Google’s targeted advertising. My Firefox ad preferences mostly reflect the type of research I carry out, although I was puzzled by the inclusion of Local -Regional Content – Africa.

Google Ad Preferences

To opt out of  behavioural or targetted advertising run by other services the Network Advertising Initiative at lists about 50 members and allows you to opt-out of all or a selection. The list will also inform you whether or not you currently have an active cookie from that service. When I looked at my listing there were about fifteen I had never heard of and amazed that I had active cookies on nearly all of them. This is big business!

Network Advertising list of cookies

NAI member companies set a minimum lifespan of five years for their opt out cookies but if your browser is set to automatically clear cookies after a certain time period you will have to go through the opt-out procedure again. Note that opting-out does not mean that adverts will no longer be displayed, it just means that they will not match what Google and other services believe are your interests.

What Google knows about you(1): check your dashboard

Many of us are well aware that the search engines track how we search and what we click on. This information is used to build up a profile of you and provide a personalised service, not only for the advertisements that are presented on your results page but also for search results. Google in particular is an expert in personalisation. At the end of last year Google announced that it would store your search history on your computer by default. (See “Your Google results are about to get weirder” at There are much more obvious ways, though, in which Google can build up a picture of your online habits: Googlemail, Google Reader, iGoogle, blog and news alerts to name just a few. But can you remember what you have set up on your Google account? Check out your Google Dashboard and be prepared for a few surprises.

Go to and sign in with your account. As one would expect, at the top of your dashboard is your personal information: name, nickname, user name and email address but also included in this group is “Websites authorized to access the account”. Nothing of interest here, I thought, but I had forgotten that a few months ago I had been testing out Mapalist, which is a tool that enables you to create mashups of data with Google maps. I had allowed Mapalist access to Google Docs so  that I could create a spreadsheet within Docs that could then be combined with a Google map. I am quite happy for this to continue as I shall be carrying on with the experiment but it is worth checking this section on a regular basis to ensure no unwanted applications have sneaked in. Also, an application that you are quite happy to allow at the moment could be sold to an organisation that has very different intentions and ideas of how it wants to use your data, and it may not necessarily be to your advantage.

Most of the sections and applications are what you might expect. Alerts are fairly straightforward but it is worth having a clear out of unwanted search alerts. In my account there are Analytics, Books and MyLibrary, Gmail and contacts, Google Buzz and ‘followers’ and ‘following’, Calendar, Custom Search Engines, details of my Google Docs, iGoogle tabs and gadgets, maps that I have created, Google reader subscriptions and Web history (in my case switched off). What came as a surprise to me was that I had two purchases in Google checkout. At first I thought my account had been hacked but as soon as I checked the information I was reminded that 18 months ago I had bought services from Google. Full credit/debit card information is not displayed but it does give the last 4 digits, so you can carry out a quick check if you spot a suspect transaction.

Another surprise for me was Picasa. I was certain that I had never uploaded any images but there were 3 photos sitting in the account. They had been put there by Google when I was playing around with the latest Google customisable home page background image. I vaguely recall Google telling me it was going to do that but did not take much notice at the time. I don’t have any problems with them being there but it is an example of how Google sucks you into services that you would not normally consider using.

And then there is YouTube. In my account this shows my YouTube username, gender, age and post code, all of which I had supplied when I set up the account. Also displayed were my viewing history, favourites, subscriptions and contacts.

The “Other products” section summarises Google products that you are using but which are not yet available on the dashboard. In my case there was my Feedburner account, Google Groups and Google Squared documents.

The Google dashboard serves as a reminder of which Google products you have signed up for and what Google has made publicly available about you. It also highlights how much information you have given to Google about yourself. Google makes a lot of user generated content public by default, for example Maps and My Library, and all the public ‘stuff’ in your dashboard has a small people icon next to it. If you do nothing else, work your way through everything in your dashboard and double check the privacy settings for each application and document. Equally important, it emphasises the importance of signing out of your Google account before leaving your machine unattended. Leave your browser signed in and anyone can come along and see in detail what you have on your Google account.