Searching and Privacy

A wall of security cameras pointed down


Have you ever visited a website and seen a pop-up that says “Accept Cookies” or “Accept Privacy Terms”? These pop-up messages are everywhere! Because we want to see the information on the website, we often click “yes” and move on without giving it another thought. But what information are you giving up? Does it really matter? There are arguments on both sides of the fence here. Some people feel that websites and companies are tracking individuals too much, to the point where targeted ads are infiltrating what people see and experience. Others claim these ads are not as targeted as they seem, and that people aren’t really being tracked—rather, activity is being tracked.


We do know, however, that your online activity can impact your search results. This phenomenon is called a filter bubble and this occurs most often and strongly within social media, but also within search engines. On social media, you are fed stories based on people or organizations you follow and posts that you liked. This means that, before long,  you see only those things that you “liked” or similar items that you have followed. This greatly limits what you see, and a filter bubble is created. Same with search results. Basically, the search tool you use learns about your preferences. It knows your location, for example, therefore, it will provide results relevant to your geography. Search tools can also track the things you click on and will provide similar results in the future. If you start clicking on New York Times articles frequently, you might see more results coming back from the New York Times in your searches. For more on the problematic “personalization” of information we see online, please read the section on Filter Bubbles.

Protecting Privacy

There are steps you can take to combat these behaviors of online tools. One thing you can do is use a search tool that does not track your browsing history. DuckDuckGo is a popular search engine that protects your privacy as you search online. Another step you can take is to use your browser’s “incognito” or “inPrivate” mode. This will also limit what is saved on your computer and prevent or limit tracking behavior as you search.

You should always be vigilant about what you agree to online. Don’t dismiss those pop-ups that you “agree” to so quickly. If you’re on a website that you are unfamiliar with, take the time to read through to what you are agreeing to. You might be surprised, and you will have to decide for yourself if what you agree to is worth what you want to access. Some of these agreements may be harmless; but in the end, it’s your information and your privacy that might be at risk. Only you can determine if and when those values should be waived.


Image: “Camera Wall” by Lianhao Qu is in the Public Domain, CC0


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to College Research Copyright © by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book