When you search for information online, you’re not the only one who learns something. Microsoft retains data identifying your search—including the words and sites you searched for, and the time and date—for 18 months. Google keeps this data for nine months. In response to pressure from privacy advocates, Yahoo! recently dropped its data-retention time to 90 days.

Because searches can be traced to you by name through your computer’s IP address (the unique identifying number assigned to all computers to access the Web), Internet search companies have a detailed profile of your personal interests and tastes. Experts worry that this private data could be misused.

In 2006, America Online (AOL) shared the search records of 658,000 users with academics for research purposes. Even though AOL tried to protect the identities of its users, some data were able to be linked back to specific individuals.

“What if every phone conversation you had was recorded and used to make decisions about you?” asks Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer-advocacy organization. “Your searches may provide information that’s just as personal, such as illnesses you are researching.”

“Consumers have no control over how their most intimate data are used,” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Currently, there are no comprehensive laws that provide privacy protection for data submitted to search engines. — Richard Clary

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