Just because something can’t be found today, doesn’t mean it can’t be found tomorrow

Search Is Improving

Every day, more data is being put online. Search engines are getting better, allowing “deeper” searching of more types of data. Techniques for extracting and connecting information from different sources are getting more powerful. Furthermore, information that is not retrievable today may be retrievable tomorrow due to changes in terms of service, public policy, law, and technical privacy settings.

Our Advice

Actively monitor your information footprint.

How It Works:

The number of Internet-connected devices, services, and applications, and the sheer volume of information on the Internet, are growing daily. At the same time, government and industry are opening more data to the public, including information that used to only be available offline. Paper-based records are being scanned and made searchable through optical character recognition (OCR). People are regularly sharing more from their daily lives, and digitizing physical media such as old photos and videos. Governments are still refining regulations about what data can be made available and how, and the social-media industry is constantly tinkering with its privacy policies.

Data users (governments, businesses, and individuals) always want better retrieval and search capability. As a result, academia and industry are providing “deeper” searching of more types of data, including semantic searching of text and multimedia retrieval techniques that can find images and videos by features of their content. New techniques follow a pipeline from intelligence agencies to consumer products: what governments could do yesterday, businesses can do today, and tomorrow individuals will be able to do at home.

What You Can Do About It:

Use Your Imagination:

  • Assume that any type of data that’s out there, from you or about you, will eventually be searchable and findable if someone has an interest in making it so — even if the techniques aren’t available today.

Get the Facts:

  • Keep track of laws and policies about what kind of information can be made public, and check your privacy settings for any services you use. But also keep in mind that all of those things may change in the future without your knowing it!
  • Search for yourself regularly to see what others can find out about you.

Choose What You Use:

  • Only give out as much personal information as you have to, since it may become findable later. For example, before you enter any information in a form — online or even paper — or allow an app or service to access information about you (including your current location or your contacts), ask yourself what they need it for. If the company or service provider doesn’t need that information to provide the service you want, either:
    • Don’t give them the information;
    • Give them made-up information;* or
    • Choose some other way of getting that service.
    • * When making up information, stay within legal bounds; it’s usually not a good idea to make up information on government forms, or when doing business with banks or other highly regulated services.

How to Better Control Your Privacy — Guides:

Don’t Tag Me, Bro: How to Control Facebook Photo Tags

An Easy Way to Opt Out of Twitter’s New Photo-Tagging Feature

Where to Learn More — Related Resources and Educational Tools:

Search Is Improving

Our video about how changes in technology and policy affect what’s findable online


Track new changes to Terms of Service/Privacy Policies for popular websites

What Do You Think? Discussion Questions:

  1. How does a search engine work and what kinds of information can it find?
  2. If you can’t find something in Google, does that mean no one will ever find it in Google?
  3. How have search engines changed over the last ten or twenty years?
  4. What do those past changes imply about the future?
  5. How are changes in search-engine technology similar to or different from other technological developments in terms of the effects they have on privacy? (For example, the change from paper maps, to blurry satellite photos, to Google Streetview?)
  6. When you make a post, how long does it take before it shows up in a search engine?
  7. What is Big Data? How could it affect your privacy?
  8. If something happened before the government and other entities started putting all their records online, does that mean it can’t be found on the Internet?
  9. If a website’s or online service’s privacy policies change after you get an account, do they have to honor the policy they had when you signed up, or are you bound by the new policy?
  10. Do websites, apps, and online services have to tell you when their privacy policies change?

What People Are Saying — News, Commentary, and Research:

Facebook Graph: Why the New Search Tool Is Scary, and How to Protect Your Privacy

Free Public Database Access Encourages New Applications, Abuses

Google Gets Semantic, Launches Knowledge Graph Starting Today

Matching Known Patients to Health Records in Washington State Data

The Word: Control-Self-Delete (The Colbert Report)

How to Solve Impossible Problems: Daniel Russell’s Awesome Google Search Techniques

Study: Facebook Profile Beats IQ Test in Predicting Job Performance

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook

Actual Facebook Graph Searches

7 Sinister Technologies from Orwell’s 1984 That Are Still a Threat

Facebook May Add Your Profile Photo to Facial Recognition Database

Our New Resources for Teachers: "Search Is Improving"