TrackMeNot is a browser extension that protects web-searchers against surveillance and data-profiling. It does so not by means of concealment or encryption (i.e. covering one's trail), but instead, paradoxically, by the opposite strategy: noise and obfuscation. With TrackMeNot, actual web searches, lost in a cloud of false leads, are essentially hidden in plain view. User-installed TrackMeNot works with the Firefox Browser and popular search engines, e.g. AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN.
How It Works
TrackMeNot runs in Firefox as a low-priority background process that periodically issues randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users' actual search trails in a cloud of indistinguishable 'ghost' queries, significantly increasing the difficulty of aggregating such data into accurate or identifying user profiles. TrackMeNot integrates into the Firefox 'Tools' menu and includes a variety of user-configurable options.
*Note: TrackMeNot currently employs a randomly-combined, static list of search terms, capable of generating ~3 million unique queries. While a sizeable #, it is not adequate to foil determined data-miners aware of the system. To address this, future versions will include a much larger (server-side) database of terms, dynamically queried by TMN during its operation. Suggestions for other ways of improving TMN are always welcome!.
Why We Created TrackMeNot
The practice of logging user search activities and creating individual search profiles sometimes identifiable has received attention in mainstream press, e.g. the recent front-page New York Times article on AOL's release of collected data on individual searchers; also this front-page New York Times Business Section article describing the User-Profiling Practices of Yahoo!, AOL, MSN & Google.
We are disturbed by the idea that search inquiries are systematically monitored and stored by corporations like AOL, Yahoo!, Google, etc. and may even be available to third parties. Because the Web has grown into such a crucial repository of information and our search behaviors profoundly reflect who we are, what we care about, and how we live our lives, there is reason to feel they should be off-limits to arbitrary surveillance. But what can be done?
Legal approaches -- urging legislators to support limits on access, or courts to extend Fourth Amendment protection -- might be effective, but would require orchestrated efforts by many parties. Appeals to search companies themselves seem even less hopeful as their interests, at least on the surface, are in direct conflict with such limits. Both, at best, are long term prospects.
We have developed TrackMeNot as an immediate solution, directly implemented and controlled by users themselves. It fits within the class of strategies, described by Gary T. Marx, whereby individuals resist surveillance by taking advantage of blind spots inherent in large-scale systems1.
TrackMeNot may not radically alter the privacy landscape but helps to place a particularly sensitive arena of contemporary life back in the hands of individuals, where it belongs in any free society.
Public awareness of the vulnerability of searches to systematic surveillance and logging by search engine companies, was initially raised in the wake of a case, initiated August 2005, in which the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a subpoena to Google for one week's worth of search query records (absent identifying information) and a random list of one million URLs from its Web index. This was cited as part of its defense of the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). When Google refused, the DOJ filed a motion in a Federal District Court to force compliance. Google argued that the request imposed a burden, would compromise trade secrets, undermine customers' trust in Google, and have a chilling effect on search activities. In March 2006, the Court granted a reduced version of the first motion, ordering Google to provide a random listing of 50,000 URLs, but denied the second motion, namely, the request for search queries.
While viewed from the perspective of user privacy this seems a good outcome, yet it does bring to light several disquieting points. First, from court documents we learn that AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have complied with the government's request, though details are not given. Second, we must face the reality that logs of our online searches are in the hands of search companies and can be quite easily linked to our identities. Thirdly, it is clear we have little idea of, or say in, what can be done with these logs. While, in this instance, Google withheld such records from the Government, it would be foolish to count on this outcome in the future.
TrackMeNot is alpha software -- we welcome feedback from the community!!!