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Messing With Google

It looks like leading search scholar Helen Nissenbaum, and Daniel Howe, have devised a practical way of subverting search engines’ tracking and profiling of users. Called TrackMeNot, the software

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 ‘ghost’ queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles.

This is a fascinating innovation; if it were to become widely used, it could undermine search engines’ capacity to build the kind of “database of intentions” their business has so far been modeled on. So we can expect some kind of backlash. Might search engines refuse to operate if they detect TrackMeNot operating in the background? Might they include terms of use agreements that pledge users not to install the software?

On the one hand, one might construe use of the search engine as an implied contract; in exchange for giving up data to the search engine (including queries), you get free use of it. So TrackMeNot might be construed as an interference with such an implied contract.

On the other hand, virtually no one thinks of searching in that way. The “consideration” may well be my looking at a page with ads once my query is run. So I’d think the search engines would have to make explicit the expectation that one only run “sincere” queries. (I wonder what they think of the game suggested by Greg in the comments to the last post!).

Perhaps the most interesting angle of all of this is the AI processes that will allow TrackMeNot to build on, say, one’s extant pattern of searches, to generate a series of initially similar and then wildly divergent ones. I would think only such a strategy would amount to the “Ring of Gyges” necessary to seamlessly merge one’s search signals into the “noise” generated by TrackMeNot.

Hat Tip: Battelle’s Search Blog.