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Wednesday, October 8, 2003

another hint at the dark side of google

a piece [registration] in the new york times [text included below] describes an experiment google is conducting “to understand what the effects of it would be.”

the experiment places a cookie-based counter on the google page for some small faction of google power searchers.

i guess the most sinister spin i can put on this is that if google maintains logs (or starts to maintain logs), then those logs are, presumably, subject to secret-warrant provisions of the usa patriot act. but, really. there’s nothing to worry about. after all, google’s spokesperson has explained…

More than anything, this is just something fun

Google Starts Counting Searches

Published: October 6, 2003

Correction Appended

Think of it as an odometer for a search engine.

The Web search service Google has quietly started placing a counter on its home page for a small number of its most frequent users.

Most Google users do not have it, but a select few now have a no-frills counter that with each search clicks higher, noting “You have done 479 searches,” or whatever the actual number.

For the curious, an explanatory page linked to the counter reveals that this is a test, or limited-sample experiment of a new search counting feature.

The counter is placed on computer hard drives by a cookie, a software file that a Web site places without the recipient’s permission or notification and that transmits information back to the site. “If the number contains more than three digits,” the counter notes, “you truly are a Google frequent searcher.”

What is going on here? Google, which processes about 200 million search requests a day at no cost to users, said the counter had been placed on the hard drives of fewer than 1 percent of its users.

But the company would not specify how users were chosen or exactly when the test began.

“It’s one of our experiments,” Marissa Mayer, Google’s director for consumer products, said. “We’re playing with it to understand what the effects of it would be.”

The counter was inspired by airline frequent flier programs, Ms. Mayer said.

“We’ve heard people say they think they use Google 50 times a day.” The intent is not to encourage searching just for the sake of raising the counter numbers, she said, but rather to illustrate just how often users actually turn to the search engine.

“More than anything, this is just something fun,” she said. “I like to see my numbers go up. I feel like I’m getting smarter when the number goes up because I’ve learned.”

She said the company had deliberately not publicized the counter experiment to keep from skewing how the surfing public would use it.

Although Ms. Mayer says Google is not keeping count or a record of the searches any specific test user conducts, some privacy experts have raised concerns about the potential to collect such information, especially from a search company as popular as Google.

“Do users know that Google is spying on them?” said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, “From a privacy viewpoint, the question you’d ask is, ‘Why they are logging this?’ ”

While simply logging information for fun may be harmless, Mr. Rotenberg said he would be concerned if a company linked such software to other data that could specifically identify a user.

“It’s very important to be transparent about how you’re using this data,” he said.

Whether and when the counter might be placed on the Google screens of all users has not been decided, Ms. Mayer said.

“The test is very new,” she said. ” We’re still looking at the data.”

Correction: Oct. 8, 2003, Wednesday

An article in Business Day on Monday about an experiment by Google that places a counter on its home page to track the number of searches performed by some of its most frequent users misstated the working of the software “cookie” underlying the process. A cookie, a type of small text file, identifies the user’s computer when the person next returns to a Web site. It does not transmit information to a site. The article also referred incompletely to options for the placement of cookies. While they are often put on computers without notification, users can set their Web browsers to accept cookies, block them or accept them case by case.

posted by roj at 4:48 am