Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Google and Yahoo! know more about you than you think!

Digg.com just linked to an article from The Register, "77% of Google users don't know it records personal data". The article mentions the Google tracking cookie, and offhandedly mentions that Google also records IP addresses. Both the article and the digg discussion focused on Google's ability to track your searches, but both mostly ignored the fact that Google can assemble a pretty good idea of your web browsing habits even if you're not deliberately using any of Google's services!

What do my blog, fark.com, digg.com, AmericaBlog, Ars Technica, Slashdot, the article from The Register, and an insane number of other sites have in common? They all include assets fetched from a Google server that very well could be saving your IP address. My blog and AmericaBlog are hosted on blogger.com, which is owned by Google; fark.com has a Google search image served off of a Google server; digg.com and The Register include Google adsense code; Ars Technica and Slashdot include Google-Analytics javascript.

One might argue that in a world of dynamic addresses, firewalls, and shared computers, your IP address doesn't uniquely identify you in the same way that a tracking cookie can. But it's a pretty good start, and for a large portion of the audience, the IP address is as useful for tracking as the cookie. It's difficult to browse the web without accidentally loading these assets. (I know there's somebody out there with images, cookies, and javascript turned off feeling mighty superior right now, but that's the exception, not the rule.)

This isn't just a Google thing; guess what's common between my blog, Sploid, Coop's blog, Instapundit.com, fark.com, and any site including a Flickr image? Each of these includes assets served from a Yahoo! owned server. As you browse the web, start to look for "Ads by Google" or "My Yahoo!" icons; they're so common that you probably stopped noticing them a long time ago.

The moral isn't that your web surfing habits are traceable; nobody's surprised that their ISP knows all about their browsing habits. And it isn't that Google or Yahoo! are evil; they're really not. But for third party companies, they can gather a surprising amount of information about you as you traverse the web. It might not be a bad thing for everyone to be more aware of exactly where their surfing is leaving digital footprints.

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4 Comments:

At 12:26 PM, January 25, 2006, Anonymous TBerz said...

Geez, Michael, are you now getting paranoid about your darling Googs? Pretty soon you'll be back to chiseling stone with cuniform to avoid the ever watchful eye on the internets. Nice graphic, BTW.

 
At 12:34 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger IvyMike said...

I'm just trying to raise awareness that almost every web page you browse probably pings a Google or Yahoo server. I think a lot of people would be surprised by this.

With our government doing everything they can to outpace North Korea's love of citizen surveillance, raising awareness of your digital footprints is becoming more and more important.

 
At 3:23 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger kendra said...

raising awareness is always a good thing about any issue. i guess it must be sad to realise that google isn't the paradigm of a good and friendly billion dollar company. (are there really any?)

 
At 3:32 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger IvyMike said...

Quite the contrary. I don't think they're evil; just that they have a LOT of information and therefore a lot of power. And I could easily imagine that power being appropriated and abused by the government. Especially this government.

 

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