Google Web History: Not the Realm of Conspiracy Theorists

There’s been a lot of talk about Google’s launch of their new Web History product, an enhanced version of Google Search History that keeps track of every web page you’ve ever visited (with the help of the PageRank feature on the Google Toolbar). Unfortunately, many smart people are missing the point here.

Nathan Weinberg at Inside Google makes this odd statement:

It’s long been conspiracy theorized that, thanks to the PageRank feature on the toolbar, which tells you the PageRank value of every page you visit, Google could keep track of every site you go to. Now, thanks to Web History, that is actually true

If you’re looking for a conspiracy theory, I suggest you start here. But it is a known fact that the PageRank feature of Google Toolbar allows Google to track every site you visit. Google itself says as much in the privacy section of the Toolbar FAQ:

if users are running the Google Toolbar with advanced features enabled, Google may collect information about webpages that they’re viewing. …For the PageRank feature, we need the URLs of the sites users visit so we can send them the PageRank (our view of the page’s importance) for the page they’re viewing

Google also acknowledges it in the nice warning provided to the millions of users who download Toolbar:

It is not a conspiracy theory that the PageRank feature of Toolbar allows Google to track all web traffic, and rhetoric like Weinberg’s just clouds the important privacy issues at stake.

Weinberg and others also make strides to mention that Google allows users to pause and delete their history from the new Web History product. Well, that’s only partially correct. Sure, users can remove history from what is viewable in this new interface, but that doesn’t remove it from Google’s servers altogether. As Google itself acknowledges (emphasis added):

If you remove items, they will be removed from the service and will not be used to improve your search experience. As is common practice in the industry, Google also maintains a separate logs system for auditing purposes and to help us improve the quality of our services for users

Again, pausing or removing items from Web History does not mean that you are removing it from Google’s servers. And again, this isn’t something to be cast aside as a conspiracy theory.

Essentially, there is little new here from a privacy or surveillance perspective – Google has long had the ability to track user’s online activities beyond their usage of Google properties. My only hope is that more people might now realize the full extent to which Google can track and monitor their surfing habits.

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