Search engine surveillance

I remember a ProFiles Magazine story published twenty years ago called Mouse Trap, about a fictional computer program developed to differentiate individual users based on their keystrokes, by identifying the pattern to the rhythm of their typing.

It should be no surprise that your typing signature can be as unique as your handwriting. Since that fictional story, researchers have of course patented exactly such a program. I describe this technology to illustrate that computers are recording more about us than we think we are revealing. Our own computers.

Computers with Windows Operating Systems are notorious for running stealth programs without the specific consent of the user. Microsoft still denies conducting behind-the-scenes activities even when they are observed and documented by computer users. However the internet has made every operating system vulnerable to computer surveillance.

Let’s be clear. Identifying who we are online is the least of the surveillance goals. We are already identified by our unique computer M.A.C. address, our connection IP, our cookies, and our own internet use patterns. It’s not who we are, it’s what we are doing.

By now we all know that our internet search activities are logged and studied. After the accidental release of some Google search records, it became clear that an accumulated history of search queries can be enough to determine a user’s identity. Perhaps this has made us all more careful about what we type online.

I’m going to guess that the sense we are being watched online has made us a little more apprehensive each time we hit the enter key. Let me say that such apprehension is misplaced. We are being observed BEFORE we hit the enter key.

The celebrated cross-platform language called Java, which adds functionality to our browsers and is indeed now required by many webpages, is giving uninvited observers a peek at what we type before we decide to submit it. You can see this in action a couple places.

A first example would be IM. Instant message interfaces record when you start typing, to alert your correspondent that a message is on its way. If you decide to backspace over what you typed, to the beginning for example, your correspondent will be updated that the forecasted message will not be forthcoming. Your IM buddy can confirm that your messages are not delivered until and unless you hit enter. But your computer knows what you’ve typed all along, and the IM interface knows it too. Even if you opted to rewrite your message, the IM interface has recorded every iteration, before you decided you wanted anyone to see it.

Another example would be search engines. I’d like to direct you to Answers.com where the Java enabled suggestion box descends as you type your query. When you first try to revise your search, Answers.com offers suggestions for related searches. You may think that the page returned to you by your browser came bundled with that list of alternative suggestions. But try typing a new query from scratch. You’ll see that you’ve got the full resource of all possible queries coming forward to help out. HTTP didn’t send those to you. Those arrive based on what you are typing in real time. Answers.com is watching what you are asking before you decide what you’d like to be observed asking.

There’s an option on the Answers.com drop down box to “hide suggestions.” At least that is truth in advertizing. Your option isn’t to turn off the suggestions box, only to hide it. Hiding the Java helper will mean it won’t assist you with suggestions. It will still be transmitting your keystrokes.

Ask.com is another search site which openly hopes to entice users with its search tools. These are the same kind of “tools” which record what you are thinking of doing before you’ve done it.

The option to “hide” Java tools should give you a clue about what the other search engines are already doing. With Google and Yahoo, for example, the Java tools are hidden. Unless you have Java completely disabled on your browser, any website can elect to monitor what you are typing.

Big Brother offering suggestions for your search query

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