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Class Action Suit Targets Google for Revealing Users Search Queries

Danny Goodwin
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A federal lawsuit filed in California alleges that Google illegally shared the search queries of its users with third parties. The class action seeks "monetary relief for those whose search queries were wrongly shared, and injunctive relief to prevent continued privacy abuses."

The complaint alleges that Google has "consistently and intentionally designed its services to ensure that user search queries, which often contain highly-sensitive and personally-identifiable information, are routinely transferred to marketers, data brokers, and sold and resold to countless other third parties.

"The user search queries disclosed to third parties can contain, without limitation, users' real names, street addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers, financial account numbers and more, all of which increases the risk of identity theft. User search queries can also contain highly-personal and sensitive issues, such as confidential medical information, racial or ethnic origins, political or religious beliefs or sexuality, which are often tied to the user's personal information."

A Google spokesman said the company has not yet received a copy of the complaint and "won't be able to comment until we've had a chance to review it."

FTC Complaint

This follows a similar complaint filed by former FTC employee and privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian. He asked the FTC to investigate Google, saying the company's privacy policy is deceptive:

Mr. Soghoian's complaint centers on the way the Internet handles links that users click on to surf. When a link is clicked, the address where the user came from is transmitted to the linked site via something called a "referrer header." In the case of search queries, this address includes the entire text of the search, which may contain users' personal information if, say, they search for their own name.

In October, Google responded, saying that passing search-query data to third parties "is a standard practice across all search engines ... webmasters use this to see what searches bring visitors to their websites. ... Google does not pass any personal information about the source of the query to the destination website."

What Are Referrer Headers?

Basically, a referrer header is the URL of the web page a user was on before visiting another site. These referrer strings are a good method for determining what terms a searcher used to find your website.

For example, if you search for DVDs on Google, you'd get something like this:

http://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en#sclient=psy&hl=en&site=webhp&source=hp&q=DVD&aq=f&aqi=g5&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=&pbx=1&fp=455491e5c0b274c3

When you select a page from Google's search results, the site you go to will see a copy of the URL when using analytics software, which is quite useful for search marketers. But it's actually your browser, not Google, capturing and reporting to the website what you searched for on Google.

To better protect searchers from third parties, Google launched an encrypted search option earlier this year.

Social Media and Referrer Data

In another example, Facebook was just caught transmitting user IDs via referrers.

Johnny Widerlund wrote about a security and privacy "loophole" that was leaking private information on social media sites back in June:

A "privacy loophole" found on social networking sites, including Facebook and MySpace, allowed for data to be shared with advertisers through referrer headers sent by browser software -- data that could potentially be used to identify users in spite of promises from the companies that user information isn't shared without specific consent.

"Merely clicking an advertiser's ad reveals to the advertiser the user's Facebook username or user ID," explained security researcher Ben Edelman. "With default privacy settings, the advertiser can then see almost all of a user's activity on Facebook, including name, photos, friends, and more."

This information was leaked to the advertisers because Facebook embeds usernames and user IDs in URLs which are transmitted to advertisers through HTTP referrer headers. Facebook responded with a message on "Protecting Privacy with Referrers," saying it quickly fixed the issue, which it called a "potential" problem.

Edelman contends, "I found that a user's username/ID is sent with each and every click in the affected circumstances. So the problem was substantial, real, and immediate. Facebook errs in suggesting the contrary."


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