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Privacy Worries Spur New Search Engine Tool

The "Lost in the Crowd" tool was built in response to recent furor over AOL spilling search data on the Internet.

Web developers at Unspam Technologies Inc. have created a new tool that helps consumers protect their privacy by sending erroneous search data to AOL, Ask, Google, MSN, and Yahoo on their behalf.

Unspam CEO Matthew Prince said Lost In The Crowd took one week to build. The company built the tool in response to the recent AOL Inc. debacle, where thousands of subscribers found their search data had spilled onto the Internet.

Lost In The Crowd randomly generates queries to confuse anyone who might look through future search records. Users download a search engine bookmark from Lost In The Crowd before going to the search engine and clicking on the bookmark.

Downloading the bookmark hands the Web cookie for the search engine to another computer operated by Unspam, which runs random searches on the searcher's behalf, several times daily for up to six months.

The debate over whether or not consumers have the right to keep their search information private, or does Google and other search engines have the right to aggregate and sell it supports the premise for building the site, Prince said. "It's really a proof of concept," he said. "It creates deniability around any search you run."

To stop the process, searchers return to the search engine and click on the Lost In The Crowd bookmark. This displays the quantity and the last erroneous search description run on the user's behalf, and an option to remove the bookmark and cookie.

Can a few daily random searches hide a person's identity? "The amount of information an individual volunteers just in the course of living life on a daily basis is mind boggling," said Leslie Ann Reis, director and professor of law at the Center for Information Technology & Privacy Law, The John Marshall Law School. "Most people are unaware of the implications of their personal information being out there and the search terms they might use to find information."

There's a bigger problem, however. Reis said people must become aware that discrete pieces of information can tie together to identify or locate them, suggesting to avoid "vanity searches," especially when searching for information they would prefer not be linked with.

Consumers could find themselves in trouble with law enforcement by searching on separate items that combined might create illegal drugs or explosive devices, Reis said. "I might be profiled and viewed differently," she said. "The whole notion of drawing inferences and predictive analyses on search data creates problems."

While privacy remains an issue for consumers, search engines depend on the data to answer two important questions for advertisers: are the ads reaching the intended audience, and are searchers acting on the ads by clicking on the link or advertisements and executing transactions.

The analysis gives Google and others fodder to convince advertisers their messages are getting to the intended audience. The more the search engines can prove this, the more money they can charge, says Forrester Research Inc. senior analyst Matthew Brown.

"It would become a huge disadvantage to search engines if suddenly the ability to track user data and what they're looking for disappears," Brown said. "The challenge becomes the company's ability to walk the tightrope and collect information. They need to use it responsibly by adding value through better targeted content without breaking the trust they have with consumers."

Brown suggests consumers delete cookies from their Web browser. Additionally, the Onion Router, or Tor, is a service to help anonymize Web traffic by bouncing it between servers. It masks the origin of the search and makes it easier to evade filters.

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