TrackMeNot: Resisting Surveillance in Web Search

Privacy and Security, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Internet and Search and Advertising

Article Snapshot

Author(s)

Daniel C. Howe and Helen Nissenbaum

Source

in Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society, I. Kerr, C. Lucock and V. Steeves, eds., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009

Summary

TrackMeNot obfuscates a user’s web search history by creating additional randomly-generated search terms.

Policy Relevance

Legislators need to ensure freedom of association and expression are protected online and recognize that technical solutions aimed to provide individual users with more power vis a vis search companies are inevitable absent stronger legal and policy solutions.

Main Points

  • Since 2005, a number of high-profile incidents reported in the press have made clear that user queries recorded and stored by search engines like Google can be easily subpoenaed by government or law enforcement officials, sold to third-party advertisers, and potentially abused by the search companies themselves.
     
  • Because neither search companies nor government agencies have any incentive to reduce the amount of data they keep on file or have access to, users concerned with freedom of expression and association online need technical solutions to preserve their autonomy.
     
  • TrackMeNot, a free, open-source, lightweight browser extension that helps protect web searchers from surveillance and data-profiling by search engines, helps ensure user autonomy through obfuscation: the system generates a random series of search queries that are sent to the search engine along with a user’s authentic one.
     
  • TrackMeNot deploys a variety of technical means to ensure the search queries it generates are difficult to distinguish from a user’s actual query. The system has been critiqued for taking up unnecessary bandwidth and violating search engines’ Terms of Use, but the authors believe these criticisms do not outweigh the benefits of the increased individual autonomy TrackMeNot provides.
     
  • More generally, TrackMeNot is a prime example of a web application designed explicitly with particular political and social values held in mind.

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