Chelsea Schilling is a commentary editor and staff writer for WND and a proud U.S. Army veteran. She has also worked as a news producer at USA Radio Network and as a news reporter for the Sacramento Union.More ↓Less ↑
Who in the world knows as much about you and your private thoughts as Google?
That’s the question Katherine Albrecht, radio talk-show host and spokeswoman for Startpage, a search engine that protects user privacy, is posing to American Internet surfers.
“It would blow people’s minds if they knew how much information the big search engines have on the American public,” she told WND. “In fact, their dossiers are so detailed they would probably be the envy of the KGB.”
It happens every day, Albrecht explained. When an unfamiliar topic crosses people’s minds, they often go straight to Google, Yahoo or Bing and enter key terms into those search engines. Every day, more than a billion searches for information are performed on Google alone.
“If you get a rash between your toes, you go into Google,” she said. “If you have a miscarriage, you go into Google. If you are having marital difficulties, you look for a counselor on Google. If you lose your job, you look for unemployment benefit information on Google.”
Albrecht said Americans unwittingly share their most private thoughts with search engines, serving up snippets of deeply personal information about their lives, habits, troubles, health concerns, preferences and political leanings.
“We’re essentially telling them our entire life stories – stuff you wouldn’t even tell your mother – because you are in a private room with a computer,” she said. “We tend to think of that as a completely private circumstance. But the reality is that they make a record of every single search you do.”
The search engines have sophisticated algorithms to mine data from searches and create very detailed profiles about Americans. She said those profiles are stored on servers and may fall into the wrong hands.
She pointed to the recent cyber attacks that infiltrated Google’s operations in China. Bloomberg News reported that Yahoo was also among the victims.
Albrecht said the government may also subpoena citizens’ private information after it has been stored by Google, Yahoo and Bing. In a December 2009 interview with CNBC, Google CEO Eric Schmidt divulged that search engines may turn over citizens’ private information to the government.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Schmidt said. “But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And it’s important, for example, that we are all subject to the United States Patriot Act. It is possible that information could be made available to the authorities.”
A video of Schmidt’s statements follows:
“My jaw hit the floor when I heard that,” Albrecht said. “Now they are just coming right out and telling us that they will turn our data over to the feds. Based on what I know about how much information they have on us, it’s really terrifying.”
In addition to information collected from searches, Google also saves sent and received e-mails, including e-mail drafts, attachments and chat messages through its Gmail system.
“What these big search engines have is the eye in the sky,” Albrecht said. “It’s like the totalitarian dictator’s dream. They know everything, and with a couple of mouse clicks, they could find every single person in the country who observes Passover or attends a Catholic or Baptist church or who buys ammunition.”
She continued, “They’ve gotten so sophisticated that they actually boast that they can tell when their own employees are going to quit because they monitor their employees’ mouse clicks.”
Albrecht said she was alarmed to discover that another application, Google Flu Trends, used aggregated Google search data to track flu activity around the world. The organization boasted that it could spot a flu outbreak even before the Centers for Disease Control suspected one. The search-engine giant collaborated with the CDC on the project.
The following is a Google video illustrating how the Google Flu Trends works:
“We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” Google explained. “Of course, not every person who searches for ‘flu’ is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in different states and countries around the world.”
Albrecht said Google monitored search patterns that indicated a person may have had the flu. Then it would pinpoint a person’s location using an IP address.
“They turned that map over to the government,” she said. “They didn’t give any personal information about individuals. They didn’t give individual IP addresses or say who the people were – but they could have.”
The search-engine giant uses its search records for marketing purposes, Albrecht explained.
She said some people wonder why Google would give them all this “free cool stuff” like Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Groups, Google Spreadsheets, Google Earth and Gmail.
“When was the last time a company making billions of dollars gave you every single thing they offered for free?” she asked. “They’re not giving you those products for free. You’re the product, and that’s the bait.”
But she said there’s good news. Startpage, and its European brand Ixquick,, are introducing a new search alternative that will protect and never store private information about its users. Startpage will launch its new proxy service tonight at 10 p.m. EST.
Startpage, a private search engine, launches new proxy service tonight.
The proxy service allows users to search and surf the Web anonymously. With each Startpage search, the word “proxy” appears under each result. If a user clicks “proxy,” they may view the result privately.
Startpage visits the selected website, retrieves the information and shows it to the user in a privacy-protected window. A private user’s browser never interacts directly with the external website so the websites cannot capture or record personal data or load malware onto a private computer. Websites only see that a site in the Netherlands is visiting the website, she said. The search engine never records personal information, search data or IP addresses.
“Startpage doesn’t have any information, so even if it was served with a subpoena or, like Google, if it got hacked, there would be no records to obtain because it doesn’t keep any records,” Albrecht explained.
She said she hopes people will start supporting companies like Startpage and move their traffic away from the other big search engines, so Google, Yahoo, Bing and others will learn to respect user privacy.
“As consumers, we almost have an obligation to stop using them until they behave themselves,” Albrecht said. “Sometimes you want to know private stuff. It doesn’t mean you have something to hide or are doing anything wrong. It just means you don’t want other people knowing what you’re thinking about and looking up. It’s nobody’s business.”