Seven ways to keep your search history private

Here's how you can make sure that you keep your searches to yourself

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The greatest threat to your privacy may not come from cookies, spyware or Web sites tracking and analyzing your Web surfing habits.

Instead, it may come from search engines, which collect and store records of your searches. Search engines track your search terms, the sites you visit as a result of your searches, the times you conduct your searches and your IP address. This makes it possible to figure out who you are, what your likes and dislikes are, and what you do online.

Search records can be subpoenaed by the federal government and used in any way the government sees fit. And the records can also be inadvertently released to the public, for all the world to see. For example, in August 2006, AOL LLC accidentally published the search histories of 650,000 users, and that data soon spread throughout the Internet.

Does this mean that you give up your privacy every time you visit a search engine? Not if you're smart about it. Follow these seven tips, and you'll go a long way toward keeping your search history private, no matter which search engine you use.

Tip No. 1: Don't log into search engines or their tools

If you log into a search engine, you make it easy for that search engine to build a comprehensive profile about you, because they know your identity as you search. You may think that you never log into search engines, but there's a good chance that you do, possibly without thinking about it. Long gone are the days when a search engine was only a search engine. Today, they're entire ecosystems of sites and services. Google, for example, offers dozens of services, including Gmail, online office software, blogging services and more. For most of them, you need to log in if you want to use them.

For privacy's sake, never do searches when you're logged into any of a search engine's services, such as its mail service. So, for example, when you're logged into Gmail, don't search the Internet.

As a practical matter, this may be difficult to do, so another option is to use one browser such as Firefox for a service like Gmail, and another such as Internet Explorer for doing Google searches. That way, it will be much harder for the search engine to correlate your identity with your searches. For maximum safety, use an "anonymizing" service or software such as Tor for the browser that you use to search with. (For details about surfing anonymously, see the next article in this series.)

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