|Adapted from original image by Alan Cleaver CC-BY|
When Danny Sullivan posted on Search Engine Land that Bing had been copying search results from Google the story went viral, and has since appeared in the morning papers here in the UK.
The resulting traffic crippled the Search Engine Land website, and forced Microsoft to issue a denial: we do not copy Google's results.
I caught the news early on Twitter and, unable for a couple of hours to access Danny's original article, I puzzled over how Google could let this happen! The technology exists to limit the ability of your rivals to take a wholesale copy of any website.
I'd bet my house on Google having the technology to prevent rivals stealing results. To do this on a commercial scale, as required by a large rival like Bing, and not get caught, would simply be : impossible.
Which brings me on to privacy and why this story is important to us all. A post on the official Google blog links Bing's copying of search results to the Bing browser tool bar and/or the Suggested Sites feature of Internet Explorer. Many people use these convenient browser add-ons, but few are aware - or even care - exactly how much personal information might be sent back to the maker of the add-on.
Implicit in the allegations detailed on the official Google blog is that the browser, combined with the Bing tool bar, does, in certain circumstances such as the configuration outlined in Google's blog posting, send substantial portions - if not the whole - of the web page visited back to Microsoft.
Software engineers have known ever since web browser add-ons were invented that any add-on has the potential to snoop on your entire web browsing session.
Of course any reputable company is restricted by privacy laws* and a desire to protect their reputation and maintain public trust†, but I wonder how many of us have clicked the "accept" button for an add-on without realising we had just granted permission for the maker of that tool to snoop on your web browsing? Without really appreciating that almost everything you do in your web browser could be relayed back to a third party?
Because of this I use very few browser add-ons; and, without sounding too paranoid, I would seriously urge readers to review the list of add-ons installed on their browser and consider whether (a) that tool brings you any tangible benefits and (b) you trust the supplier of the add-on to only take the information it says it wants and process any information gathered in a secure and sensitive way. If the answer to either question is no, then remove it without hesitation!
Privacy isn't about having something to hide, it's about taking sensible precautions to limit who knows what about you. In practical terms this will limit the capacity of spammers and marketeers to hassle you with marketing messages and reduce the possibility that some of your personal details may fall into the hands of criminals and be misused in an attempt to hijack your online accounts.
But in general terms privacy is about limiting the power others have over you once they know information about you. Again we're not talking about hiding illegal or even immoral or embarrassing acts, but how many of us would be happy for our parents to know every detail of our lives that our close friends know? It's a basic right to be able to choose what information we share and with whom.
*A quick note on privacy laws - laws are local to a particular state or country, whilst most internet services have an international reach. I discussed the implications of this in my elastic jurisdiction post.
†And also a caution on reputation. Whilst a company may well take your privacy very seriously, there is always the risk of a data leak. All it takes is one rogue employee who may be tempted to sell for example account names or email addresses on the black market - and there is such a market - or one engineer to make a simple error or miscalculation for private data to be released.
Taking privacy seriously also encompasses several basic principles, such as: collecting and storing only the minimum amount of data necessary for any given purpose; and, processing the information in such as way as to remove or decouple identifying information such as IP and email addresses, account IDs etc from the data gathered at the earliest opportunity.