Search engines and personal data: Are users sharing too much?

Internet browsers are like sports teams. Every IT department and individual has an opinion on which one is the best, and personal preferences often comes down to long standing allegiances.

In the browser’s case, this is due to personal preference or ease of IT administration. Search privacy is not always top of the agenda, but should it be?

Browsers collecting user search and browsing data is not a new practice, but it is a topic that continues to receive regular attention in the press and by campaigners. There are contrasting opinions as to whether data collection really helps the user experience or if it intrudes upon personal privacy.

Whichever side of the fence you occupy, everyone should ask themselves two simple questions when using their web browser or search engine: where is the information being stored and am I happy with this practice?

Google, combined with Chrome, is one of the most common choices by users and serves as an interesting case study. For example, any time you research a sales prospect, look at a competitor’s website or plan a sensitive business trip, your search history is stored by Google. The company never forgets what you looked at or where you have been online.

If this scenario fills you with dread, take a moment to think about your IT team, which has to guard a company’s corporate data and its users’ privacy. That said, just because someone else is tasked with protecting your data should not mean you can overlook your own responsibilities.

Everyone should consider how they can ease the burden on the IT department. This is particularly relevant for smaller businesses with less in-house IT security expertise.

Downloading History

Sometimes all it takes for someone to improve their browsing behaviour is to give them more awareness of what they are searching online.

With the information in front of them, they might rethink what they are using the corporate network for.

Google actually provides an easy-to-use tool for users to download their search histories for analysis.

This information is immensely valuable to Google as it is passed onto advertisers, but it also has the potential to be misused by hackers for identity theft.

Most IT departments will have stringent policies for managing this information, however SMBs are usually less experienced in this area and occasionally need their staff to assist the process more directly.

An example of best practice in this area is to regularly use Google’s tool to download this sensitive information onto a secure system, and then delete it from Google’s own servers.

Deleting History

Some users will prefer that the data never be collected, however, it can be useful in helping to create a better browsing experience. Should you wish to delete the data, you need to follow a slightly different process depending on which platform you are using (Computer, Android app, iOS app or mobile browsers).

Another option is to consider an alternative search engine. DuckDuckGo has risen in popularity on the promise that it will never store or track web searches. We also recently analysed a range of iOS web browsers on their privacy credentials. For a more proactive approach, there are affordable tools available to small business owners that gather data on employee usage trends and activity, and integrate this with security capabilities.

Every business will have a unique strategy for dealing with search privacy, however, businesses, particularly smaller organisations, now have the tools available to manage this area of employee security with greater ease and flexibility.

Jeff Erwin, CEO, Intego and Flextivity

Image source: Shutterstock/Minerva Studio