The Great Google Escape
Google’s products are fast, intuitive and reliable–but they are not free. You pay Google with your identity, behaviour, habit, and preference information. Google then collates and analyses this data and sells it to advertisers and gives it to government and intelligence services. The longer Google does this, the more valuable the data becomes. This raises some very real privacy and security concerns for people who use Google.
There are solutions to this privacy and security issue. The first obvious solution is to avoid putting all your digital eggs in one basket. Use a different email and calendar provider. Use Firefox not Chrome as a browser. Use providers in Europe to take advantage of European Union privacy laws.
Sign in to your Google account and Use Google Takeout to export your data to a downloadable ZIP file from all the Google products. Getting out of Gmail is easy–getting out of Calendar and Contacts not so much. Google sets file standards for their calendar and address-book to make migration awkward. However, migrating to mailbox.org in Germany seems to go ahead without any real difficulty. It even allows you to encrypt your emails and other files before storing them on the server. Best of all they do not scan your data and try to monetize it. However, it costs €1 per month.
If you use the free Google Drive, consider using the Omnicloud from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, which allows you to encrypt all data locally before uploading it to the cloud.
Install a tracker blocker such as Ghostery and Self-Destructing Cookies (SDC) in Firefox to guard against browser cookies and use a search engine like Duck Duck Go which does not record your search history.
Are you uncomfortable with how much Google knows about you? Google makes a lot of money mining your search history. A Boston-based privacy company Abine has a solution to this problem.
The Blur Private Search service prevents Google from linking a search query to you. Search results appear normally, except your search, IP address, and the links that you click on can’t be identified or connected to you by the search engine. It is easy to set-up and use—you don’t have to sign-up using Gmail or other service. Create an account using a throw-away email address.
Nothing is perfect. Private Search only works with Firefox because Chrome tells Google about everything you do all by itself. It won’t protect you from other search engines like Bing or Yahoo.
Google now lets you export your web search history. However, you must be signed into you Google account. Just click on the little cog in the top-right of your screen in your Google Account history, and hit “Download.”
This is a lot simpler than the work-arounds that you probably used in the past.
Your search and browsing behaviour allows Google to personalise your search results. To escape this filtering of your results use a private browser window called incognito as it is called in Chrome. Google will then ignore tracking and search cookies to stop personalising your results. To get a private browser or incognito window use the following key combinations:
- Chrome – Ctrl+Shift+N
- FireFox – Ctrl+Shift+P
- Internet Explorer – Ctrl+Shift+P
I have found that this approach doesn’t work with Bing.
The Google/Yandex Search Link Fix Firefox extension prevents Google Search and Yandex from modifying result links when they are clicked. If you try to copy the link you may get gibberish instead of the actual link. If you try to copy the text description in the results it won’t work unless you got to the Edit menu and select Copy — Ctl+C won’t work. This extension disables these behaviors on any Google domain without having to configure anything.
Did you know that you can improve your Google results by changing the order of the words in your search statement? Try searches for “civil society” or “society civil”, with and without double quotes. Do you notice any difference in the search results?
Did you know that you can make your Google search results more relevant by changing the reading level? If your search statement is complex or the topic is complex then selecting the advanced reading level may yield more relevant sites. To make this selection, click on Search tools then All Results and click on Reading level. The results will then be annotated with reading levels as well as a percentage breakdown of results by reading level. To filter by a reading level, click on the desired reading level. To go back to all results, click on View results for all.
Google and other search engines are wonderful things for gathering information, we all know that, but what if people with evil intent are gathering information about you?
Getting out of Street View
Google Street View provides a great deal of data that can be used to plan an attack on a facility, a person, or to conduct a kidnapping. Google offers an easy, free, and effective way to restrict access to this data.
At a client’s home, I found that his car licence plate was legible. This usually occurs when the car is parked inside a garage or car port. At the client’s workplace, several security measures were clearly visible as were other features of the facility that raised concerns.
Google’s solution is to place an opaque digital wall around your house or facility. To get out of Google Street View, first search for the street address. Once the property is visible, you will find a small box at the bottom right of the image that says “Report a problem”. Click on this to select a reason for blurring the image of the property. I usually select Other: This image presents security concerns. Add some discriptive data to help Google identify the property and complete the CAPTCHA (an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”) thing that takes me several tries to get right. In 2 or 3 days a blurred wall should appear around the property.
Google eliminated the synonym search feature in June. If you wanted to search your search term and its synonyms, you placed the tilde sign (“~”) immediately in front of your search term. They said nobody used this feature. I guess my new name is ‘Nobody’.
With this gone, an alternative called Google synonym Search Tool has appeared as a usable replacement.
It’s apparent that Google believes that its search algorithms are capable of determining the searcher’s intent. It is also obvious that Google filters out explicit image content, regardless of user settings. If you don’t believe me, just search for a few sex acts in the image search without any filtering and witness the effectiveness of the over-riding search restrictions.
This leaves the researcher wondering what words are on the “restricted” list. With all the euphemisms for sex acts it is easy to see that searches not related to sex acts might be restricted by Google’s all-knowing, all-seeing, algorithm.
I have written about the site: command in Google before.
The site: command in Google is an invaluable tool for doing Investigative Internet Research (IIR), especially in combination with other advanced operators.
Google site: Tool
Google site: Tool only works Firefox 14 or later on Windows 7.
It allows you to add site: or -site: to modify your Google search results. To limit your query to a particular site in the results, or to re-run the query excluding that site from the results, click the green URL below the result header. This works best on Google.com rather than the country-specific versions of Google. It also works on the encrypted version of Google.com.
This addon requires Greasemonkey.
Serious searchers need a proximity search operator. In Google, it’s an undocumented feature.
The Google proximity operator is AROUND(x) which MUST BE IN CAPS. The number sets the maximum distance between the two terms. To make the operator work properly, you must write it in all capitals and place it between the words. It will return results with variables of the words such as plurals, etc., as is normal for Google.
This operator is handy when the combination of search terms is dominated by one term, but you’re interested in the relationship between two query terms. This is particularly important when searching names. A person’s name may appear with a middle initial in some instances and without it in other instances. This operator will find both instances. It will also be very helpful is the person’s last name is common or also used by another prominent person.
Keeping track of sites that don’t offer RSS feeds or email updates can be a problem for Researchers and Investigators.
As of September 30th, Google Reader will be turning off track changes. Track Changes allowed you to create a custom feed to track changes on pages that don’t have their own feed. Page2RSS seems to be one of the few alternatives available to replace this.
Page2Rss will convert any web page to RSS feed. You can even add a button to your browser’s bookmarks toolbar that will create Page2RSS feed for the page you are currently viewing.
Another alternative to Google Reader’s Track Changes is in the bottom left corner of the FeedBlitz home page. Insert a URL and get email updates from a website or blog that doesn’t offer email subscriptions.
Copernic Tracker – automatically looks for new content on Web pages, forums, and Social sites. When a change is detected, our Web site tracking software can notify you by sending an email, including a copy of the Web page with the changes highlighted, or by displaying a desktop alert.
WatchThatPage is a service that enables you to automatically collect new information from your favorite pages on the Internet. You select which pages to monitor, and WatchThatPage will find which pages have changed, and collect all the new content for you. The new information is presented to you in an email and/or a personal web page. You can specify when the changes will be collected, so they are fresh when you want to read them. The service is free!
Google Custom Search Engine is a powerful tool that lets you set a list of specific web sites that Google will check when you search. Google Custom Search Engines can be made to search specific sites for government documents, recipes, or how to survive the zombie apocalypse. A search engine may be set-up to search one website or multiple websites. Of course you need a Google Account to create the custom search. Go to the above link and create one for yourself if you wish.
However, there are quite a few that are available because somebody else has done the work for you. Each custom search engine has an ID to refer Google to the correct custom search engine. For example, the Canadian Government Documents search engine that I use has ID: 007843865286850066037:3ajwn2jlweq. To get to it, put http://www.google.com/cse/home?cx= before the ID as follows:
The U.S.A. Government information search engine that I often use is at
The Intergovernmental Organizations (UN & the like) site is at
You might want to use SaskSearch – the Saskatchewan, Canada Search Engine which is a regional search engine for the province of Saskatchewan, Canada, or go to the Caribbean Newspaper Search.
These custom search engines can save the researcher or investigator a lot of work if they are employed properly.
If you are a Google+ user, then you now have a new search tool (the encrypted site is https://www.google.com/insidesearch/plus.html). When you are signed into your Google+ account your search engine results will be sorted for relevance in different fashion. Your search results will be sorted by what your Google+ friends say about the search term. This process assumes what your friends say is more important than other content.
This personalised search relevance is a boon for advertisers that want your attention. Google isn’t the first to do this. In 2010 Bing began ranking sites in search results based upon how many of your Facebook friends “like” the site.
The search engines and advertisers have decided that people want to search for other people and their opinions over other content. How convenient for the search engines and advertisers!
If you want a full explanation of the impact this will have for the Investigator, then read Phil Bradley’s article titled Why Google Search Plus is a disaster for search. Google is no longer my first choice, I start with Bing, then DuckDuckGo, and last but not least, I search Blekko.
Google announced the demise of the ‘+’ operator a few weeks ago. The new Verbatim tool supposedly replaces the ‘+’ search operator to get exact terms users search for.
To switch on the verbatim search tool, go to “2. More search tools” in the column on the left side of the screen.
Verbatim is not the same as the unary operator ‘+’. In a unary operation, in a mathematical system, one element is used to yield a single result. Verbatim forces all terms to be searched “verbatim” not just one term. Verbatim searches also switch-off some of the standard corrections. Sometimes this hinders your search. According to SearchEngineLand, Verbatim searches without the following:
- making automatic spelling corrections
- personalizing your search by using information such as sites you’ve visited before
- including synonyms of your search terms (matching “car” when you search [automotive])
- finding results that match similar terms to those in your query (finding results related to “floral delivery” when you search [flower shops])
- searching for words with the same stem like “running” when you’ve typed [run]
- making some of your terms optional, like “circa” in [the scarecrow circa 1963]
If you want to conduct a search where one word is misspelled, but the other is correct, and you also want synonyms, stemming, etc., then you can’t use verbatim unless you put the required word in double quotes. This will make searching for misspelled names (the “27 Mohammeds problem”) along with other search terms more difficult.
Verbatim may help limit the impact of “personalisation” that makes some searches difficult in Google, but the loss of functionality isn’t worth the gain in my opinion.
If as Google insists, it dropped the + operator because it wasn’t used, then I shall begin worrying about search operators such as intitle, allintitle, ~, *, – and other advanced search features that make Google my first choice.