In response to regulatory pressure and to apply some pressure on their competition, Yahoo has announced that after 90 days it will anonymize search queries and remove personally identifiable information (PII) from them as well. Specifically, Yahoo will delete the last eight bits from the IP address associate with a search. Further, Yahoo will remove some PII data, like names, phone numbers and Social Security numbers from the searches. The goal is to (eventually) destroy the ties between a person and what that person searches for which could include embarrassing, compromising, or sensitive items such as information about medical conditions, political opposition materials, adult entertainment, etc.
There are two points I want to draw you attention to. The first point is related to the amount of time search providers, like Yahoo, hold identifiable search queries. Regulators have recommended to search vendors to reduce how long they hold identifiable searches. The EU has recommended 6 months, for example. Yahoo, reducing their retention time from 13 months, has taken a laudable step to reduce that time to 90 days.
In the future, the time it takes a search provider to extract whatever goodness it wants to out of a search query (to feed its varied businesses) and anonymize that query will reach zero. External pressures aside, the Googles and Yahoos of the world will achieve near-instantaneous goodness-extraction/anonymization of search queries simply because it reduces what they have to store, maintain, and worry about. That being said, even though search providers will be able to achieve near-instantaneous extraction and anonymization, they will never be able to put it into practice. Why? Because there will always be a desire on the part of law enforcement to gain access to those identifiable searches. Continue reading “Stripping Search”