THE BLOG
10/31/2013 09:25 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2013

What Your Search History Says About You (And How to Shut It Up)

With this week's revelation that the NSA secretly hacked into the data centers that power Google and Yahoo users' emails and documents (allowing them to check out users' files at will and without warrants), one is forced to wonder if Americans are aware of exactly how much personal information the NSA might find there -- and how much they agreed to provide.

After all, type anything into a Google search and its auto-complete function provides a peek into the sometimes-dark reaches of our collective psyche -- for better and, more often, for worse. But how does Google start to guess at what you're looking for? By tracking you and all its millions of other users and analyzing the data.

But before you decide it's time to use Yahoo! or Bing instead, you might be interested to know that they're often doing the exact same things as Google, despite Bing's infamous "Scroogled" ad campaign. So if you don't want to let big business -- or Big Brother -- keep track of that which you store in the dark recesses of your brain, what can you do?

First off, read each site's privacy policies. No time for that? Here's the CliffsNotes version of the information that the three major search engines collect on you.

  • Google: The privacy policy states that by signing in, you allow Google to collect information about you -- including whatever you give them. This includes your name, address, phone number--maybe even a credit card number and a photo. In addition, utilizing Google's services allows them to collect information about your devices (including your cellphone number or other unique device identifiers), your location, the details of your calls (like who you call and how long you spend on the phone), archives of your searches, your IP address, a unique identifier for any software you are using (like Chrome) and cookies or other tracking identifiers stored on your device.
  • Bing: This search engine's privacy policy says that it also uses cookies, including multiple ones if you are signed into a Microsoft service while using Bing. For each search, you're associated with an IP address (which is deleted after six months) and an approximate location. Bing also records the type of device you are using and what you searched for when you searched for it. Unlike Google, Bing explicitly says that it stores search terms and cookie IDs separately from the personal information of who conducted the search. Like Google, Bing may use your searches to better target advertisements to you.
  • Yahoo!: Yahoo collects as much information as Google from registered users if not a little bit more -- name, email address, birth date, gender, ZIP code, occupation, industry and personal interests, some of which is required to register on the site. The company additionally offers services that require giving your address, Social Security number (a query about which you should always be cautious), and information about your assets -- none of which is anonymized as you use its products. They assemble information about all of your interactions with them and "some" of their "business partners," record information about your computer, browser, IP address and what you visit on their site, and place cookies on your machine. They use the information garnered from all of that to customize ads and your searches, contact you, conduct research and "provide anonymous reporting for internal and external clients." Yahoo also shares your non-anonymous information with "trusted partners" who "may use your personal information to help Yahoo communicate with you about offers from Yahoo and our marketing partners."

Ready to opt out? Well, here's where things get a little complicated. If you're using any services from Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, you're already giving them at least some of this information. And if you use their services, they all retain at least some anonymized level of information about what is being searched and which results are being selected, whether that's connected to your personally identifiable information or not. And even when you opt out of information tracking for advertisers, you have to accept a cookie on your computer for those preferences to hold. Plus, as all the sites warn, opting out of all tracking might mean your search results aren't as fine-tuned to what you might normally like to see.

While there is no quick fix, if you want to ratchet up your privacy settings for search engines, here's how to do it:

  • Google: Log out before searching! This is the easiest way to keep your searches and your profile separate. Next, sign into your dashboard, scroll down and find out exactly what Google knows about you and the privacy settings for each product you use. You can also disable location information and remove your web history. Next, visit your ad settings and see what Google's got on you, what it assumes based on your searches, and then edit and delete as you see fit. Finally, visit the Google advertising network's opt-out page to limit the companies who can place cookies on your computer.
  • Bing: Again, always log out of your Microsoft account before searching. Longer-term, visit Bing"s "Search History" page and delete your search history and turn off its ability to recall your search history. Then visit Microsoft"s advertising privacy page to disable personalized ads -- targeted ads that make use of your data -- and potentially dig into what other information Microsoft collects on you if you have an account. Finally, if you haven't already done so for Google, Microsoft uses the same advertising network opt-out system that will turn off many tracking cookies.
  • Yahoo: If you don't want your account and your search history linked together, log out before you search. Next, visit Yahoo's "Search Preferences" page to stop it from logging your searches (though it won't apparently delete that which it has already logged) and, if you have an account, opt into "Safe Search" to eliminate most explicit content. You can opt out of targeted advertising, including advertisements based on your searches, by visiting the Ad Interest Manager, and opt out of many third-party ads by visiting Yahoo"s advertising network opt-out system, which covers many of the same sites as the one employed by Google and Bing.

Here's the bottom line: no matter where you go on the Web--be it Google, Bing or Yahoo to search; Twitter or Facebook to social network; or your email provider or favorite shopping sites--you're giving up a little piece of yourself, and sometimes enough to cobble together your identity. At the very least, you are granting access to information about your computer, location and browsing habits, and the more they ask for, the more they can make connections between the real-life you (or others these services think are "you," like friends, neighbors, children or your spouse, when they browse on your computer) and the online you.

When you're shopping for a new phone, you check the specs, read the reviews and make sure you know what you're getting yourself into with a new contract. Going online should be no different. Read Terms of Service carefully, proactively manage your privacy controls and remember that unless and until you've opted out of something, you've most often already opted in.