Search and Privacy: Those Log Files Are Tempting However

March 11, 2021

Search has been a basic Internet function since its inception, but when it was first invented protecting users’ privacy was not a concern.  Nowadays a simple search reveals users’ interests, locations, and much more information that can be sold or stolen.  TechRadar explains why search needs to be redesigned with privacy as the top priority: “Why We Need To Rebuild Internet Search, Putting User Privacy First.”

Early Internet developers wanted to make money from their new invention in order to build new technology.  Investors and developers were happy, because there was a profit.  Early Internet advertising, however, transformed into a big privacy problem today:

“Problems later emerged because what started out as a quick fix to a short-term problem turned into a central part of the internet’s architecture. Like anything else in tech, engineers quickly went to work optimizing advertising to be as efficient as possible, stumbling into a situation where the world’s biggest and most powerful companies were suddenly incentivized to gather more and more personal data on users to sell advertising. This resulted in algorithms to maximize engagement on content sites that prioritized instinctive and emotional decisions – or “fast thinking” as the Nobel Prize winner in behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman calls it.”

The information superhighway has turned into a giant consumerism tool that spreads fake news, radicalization, pushes unneeded products and services, and feeds on peoples’ insecurities.  Driving sales to stir the economy is one thing, but the spread of misinformation and radicalization leads to dangerous situations, including the recent coup attempt on Washington D.C. and constant backfires against science.

User-experience drives technology design and development, so any new search protocols must have today’s ease of use.  Currently multi-party computation (MPC) replicates blockchain-like technology so it protects users’ privacy.   Selected computers directly access encrypted data without knowing anything about the data, dubbed zero-knowledge computation. 

Zero-knowledge computation is a good solution to protecting user privacy, but there is a big problem preventing more development: money.  Advertisers and businesses love the current search system, because it feeds their bottom line.  Most users do not protect their data, but if they demanded more privacy protections then organizations would invest more money in that area. 

Whitney Grace, March 11, 2021

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