Problems of Personalized Search

Google Blogoscoped has an interesting post on the potential problems of personalized search, including (a) as users change their behavior, relying on prior behavior becomes less accurate, (b) users don’t like to login, (c) users don’t always want localized searches, and so on.

The discussion, however, specifically excludes the concern over privacy with personalized searches:

The problems run deeper (and I will avoid the problem of privacy, because who knows – we might be walking into a future where people give up privacy to gain the most from web sites).

This omission is irresponsible. Privacy is a fundamental concern with web searches in general, and specifically with personalized search. The ability for a search company to efficiently track and record my search habits and tie them directly to my identity has deep privacy implications. I’ve commented on that here and here.

Further, its wrong to discard such privacy concerns when discussing personalized search on the basis that perhaps some people are willing to give up some privacy in order to efficiently search the web. That is exactly what is at issue, and needs to be discussed. It certainly is possible that some will make that decision (trading the value of privacy for the value of efficiency), but we will not be fully prepared to make such decisions without a public debate.

UPDATE: Philipp Lenssen at Google Blogoscoped responds to my comments, recognizing the need to discuss the privacy considerations of personalized searching. Here are some of his comments, with my new responses:

In the end, isn’t it everyone’s choice to give up certain privacy, if they are aware of what they’re giving up?

That’s a very big IF. Awareness is a key problem with privacy of personal information. Think of how few people even heard of ChoicePoint, let alone realize how much personal information they aggregate from various sources, both public and private.

there’s too much information out there for anyone to actually go through it

That logic no longer holds as information technology becomes more and more sophisticated. First, our personal information is becoming digitized: our purchase habits, our video & library rentals, doctors visits, toll booth payments, etc are now computerized. That increases the ease of collection, storage, and analysis. Coupled with this is the increased processing power and sophistication of computers and data-mining tools, easing the ability to process and analyze these mountains of data to find patters, create profiles, and even piece together separate bits of information in order to complete a “picture” of my typical day.

what kind of concrete privacy issues would you have with, say, a personalized Google?

Numerous issues come to mind: how do they track my search terms and links I click on? how is this information matched with my Gmail, Calendar and other (future) Google services? do they sell this data to marketers? to ChoicePoint? to private investigators? what legal constraints exist to prevent law enforcement from getting this data? do they need a warrant? a supeona?

These questions remain not only unanswered, but not properly explored. One suggestion for further reading is Daniel Solove’s “The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age”

I’m not saying that personalized search will be necessarily harmful in terms of the privacy of personal information. And perhaps users will choose to decrease privacy in order to increase efficiency or some other value. But these issues need to be critically examined in the public sphere.

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