Search Engine Data Collection Citizens’ personal information has always been actively sought by government authorities and by private businesses, and up until recently, has been kept exclusively by the institutions requesting the information. However, those days of confidentiality are over, as the world becomes increasingly structured upon the evolution of the Internet.
Today, government authorities and private businesses have a multitude of ways to access personal information that is submitted through the World Wide Web, one of these methods being the surveillance and tracking of search requests through online search engines such as Google (Search Engine Privacy). The collection of personally identifiable data by search engines threatens consumer privacy and violates the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” (Electronic Privacy).
As the privacy rights of citizens are increasingly being compromised, governments need to implement stricter electronic privacy laws regarding search engine data collection to protect citizens from a world of blurred boundaries. The evolution of the World Wide Web has proved to be advantageous for private businesses that have prospered from the wealth of information that is granted to them through search engines. Search engine data analysis provides companies with crucial knowledge about their consumers, allowing businesses to maximize their profits by catering to their consumers’ needs and desires.
An example of this is the analysis of search request trends to predict when prom dresses would sell best. One would assume that with most school proms taking place in May that March through April would be the ideal time to display prom dress content online; however, search engine data research concludes that the month with the most searches for “prom dress” is January. Companies can then take this information and capitalize by making wise choices in terms of timing (Tancer 59-68).
Using consumers’ search request information to predict trends to maximize profits is a relatively benign example of how data entered into search engines can be used. Search requests contain highly personal information about consumers, such as their medical issues, religious background, political partiality, and sexual orientation, opening the door to behavioral marketing (Search Engine Privacy). By collecting information about consumer interests and habits, companies essentially have a portal into the minds of their target market, which they can use and abuse at their discretion.
Another threat that search engine data collection poses to citizens is the risk of leaked – whether intentional or accidental – personal information. Although data collection companies claim that they screen their clients thoroughly before providing them with information, critics say that the industry’s screening process is negligent (Electronic Privacy). In May 1996, for example, a television reporter based in California requested the personal information of 5,000 children from Metromail Corp. , using the name of Richard Allen Davis, a well-known convicted child murderer in the state.
The company released a list of more than 5,000 children’s names, ages, addresses and phone numbers to this undercover reporter at the cost of $277 (Electronic Privacy). This incident exemplifies the potential dangers of releasing information to third parties and the risks of not employing a thorough screening practice in the process. Another incident of leaked information involves a 62-year-old widow, Thelma Arnold, who, along with 657,000 others, had her personal search inquiries leaked by AOL.
AOL had intended the release of this information to benefit academic researchers and assigned numbers in place of names to protect the anonymity of users; however, they did not consider how easy it was to determine the identities of these users through simple investigation. As a result of this lapse in foresight by AOL detailed records of the personal search inquiries of Thelma Arnold and 657,000 other Americans are still circulating online today (Barbaro and Zeller Jr. ). Although search engine data collection has its risks, supporters argue that these companies offer a service that ultimately benefits the consumer (Electronic Privacy).
Solveig Singleton, director of information studies at the Cato Institute, says that if “’privacy alarmists’ succeed in achieving regulation of the industry, consumers will ultimately be harmed”. Singleton believes that “consumers benefit by sharing information about themselves because businesses can then design and market new products that are tailored to consumers’ needs” (Electronic Privacy). Examining the viewpoints of both critics and supporters of data collecting companies, the essential question that needs to be considered is whether or not the development of new products for a arget audience is worth risking the privacy and safety of consumers. Despite the fact that many citizens have voiced their concerns over electronic privacy matters, the government has still been reluctant to interfere with the information industry, fearing that regulation could hinder an industry that is growing exponentially and contributing to the U. S. economy. To ensure that this industry’s economic potential is fully realized, government officials are prepared to adopt a “laissez-faire” approach to Internet business (Electronic Privacy).
As the use of the Internet becomes more and more pertinent to the daily lives of citizens, the concept of privacy is being challenged. Although the government is aware that it should be seeking ways to protect its citizens, it fears at the same time that enforcing stricter online privacy rights will stunt the growth of private businesses that thrive off consumers’ personal information. Ultimately, the issue of search engine privacy is a struggle to find harmony between two opposing entities: the protection of privacy rights of citizens and the growth of the information industry and private businesses.
Unfortunately, at the moment, it is the privacy rights of citizens that are being compromised in this relationship. The government needs to create and strictly enforce specific laws pertaining to search engine data collection to deter today’s world from heading into a world like that in George Orwell’s 1984, a world in which “telescreens” monitor every citizen’s every move – a world with which our current online world shares frightening similarities.