Update: TrackMeNot fools searches

Note from the writer, added Sept. 1: This article has been updated to correct some mistatements about Browzar and its capabilities. Additionally, thank you to those of you who commented below. Given your comments, I've written another entry about Browzar.

In the wake of AOL's stunningly ill-conceived decision to publicize the search habits of hundreds of thousand of its users, as well as reports of various search engines employing user-profiling, we're seeing more Web tools emerge aimed at helping users hide their tracks to an extent -- or to baffle their trackers.

Browzar falls under the former category. Though the name sounds like Godzilla's next-door neighbor on Monster Island, Browzar is actually essentially a wrap for Internet Explorer designed to protect users' privacy by not retaining details of the Web sites they've searched. It does so by automatically deleting Internet caches, histories, cookies and auto-complete forms. Notably, aside from deleting cookies, the software really just saves you from the potential embarrassment of having those who share your PC see where you've been hanging out on the Internet.

Taking a different tack from Browzar is a Firefox extension called TrackMeNot. Rather than employing concealment or encryption to mask a user's browsing activities, it "periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN," according to the TrackMeNot Web site.

So, for example, while you're busily searching for terms like "tutu for my cat" and "XXL rubber pants," TrackMetNot will send random queries like "purple monkey dishwasher" to the aforementioned search engines. (I don't know if any of those words are actually in TrackMeNot's vocabulary; Simpsons fans can only hope.)

Doing so "significantly increases the difficulty of aggregating [search] data into accurate or identifying user profiles."

The creators, Daniel C. Howe, researcher at NYU's Media Research Lab, and Helen Nissenbaum, an associate professor at NYU, acknowledge that although TrackMeNot can produce a goodly number of faux search-term requests, "it is unlikely to deter serious data-profiling by those aware of the system. Future versions are likely to include larger (distributed) query databases, dynamically generated and/or Web-harvested queries, as well as grammar-generated natural-language queries."

The duo's explanation for developing the extension makes for interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:

"We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance."

What steps are you taking, if any, to hide your search path on the Wild Wild Web?

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