How can you help prevent damaging privacy invasions like AOL's data leak? Along with spreading the word about this debacle, you can take steps to protect yourself online. Beneath the fold, we've listed some tips and tools that will help keep your search history private.
- Don't put personally-identifying information in your searches, at least not in a way that can be associated with your other searches. You should take the precautions below to avoid giving away your identity to your search engine anyway, but they're especially necessary if you want to do a search to see if your personal information has appeared online or want to do a vanity search for your name.
- Don't use a search engine operated by your ISP. Most ISPs inherently know who their users are, at any given time and over the long run. If you use their default search tool, they know who you are and everything you search for. Use someone else's search tool instead.
- Don't log in to a search engine account. If you use a web-based e-mail service or other services provided by your search engine -- such as GMail or Yahoo! Mail -- see below on cookies.
- Don't accept cookies from your search engine. If you use a service like web-based e-mail that requires you to accept cookies, don't let the personally-identifying information in your e-mail get linked with your searches. For Firefox users, the free CustomizeGoogle extension will allow you to anonymize your search cookie without breaking GMail (see the "Privacy" tab in the CustomizeGoogle options). We're still looking for extensions that provide corresponding functionality for Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL users. You can also use Privoxy, although it's a bit more difficult to configure.
- Use a separate browser or browser profile for search and for other activities.
- Use an anonymizing proxy, or proxy network like Tor, to prevent search engines from learning your IP address, especially if your ISP gives you the same IP address each time you use the Internet.