Professor Examines Costs of Online Privacy

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Giving up personal user data online does not greatly improve the quality of internet search results, a recent study co-authored by Occidental associate professor of economics Lesley Chiou has found. 

In other words, you won’t lose much by maintaining your privacy online. And tech companies won’t learn enough about you to tailor your search results in a way that will benefit them, either.

Chiou and co-author Catherine Tucker of MIT’s working paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at whether searches changed when search engines such as Yahoo and Bing were unable to store user data such as IP addresses.

In particular, they studied whether the length of time that search engines retained their server logs affected the apparent accuracy of subsequent searches. New regulations both here and in Europe, where the study was conducted, seek to limit the length of time that search engines can keep users’ personal data—which they often hang onto for months.

Chiou and Tucker looked at how search results from Bing and Yahoo differed before and after changes in the European Commission’s rules on data retention were implemented. They found no statistically significant effect on search result quality following changes in data retention policy. In other words, making user data anonymous didn’t appear to impair the search experience.

The researchers found "little empirical evidence that reducing the length of storage of past search engine searches affected the accuracy of search. … Our results also suggest that limits on data retention may impose fewer costs in instances where overly long data retention leads to privacy concerns such as an individual's ‘right to be forgotten.’"

Their findings, they write, suggest that "possession of historical data confers less of an advantage to firms who own the data than is sometimes supposed." In other words, search engines really don’t benefit much from retaining user data. It doesn’t benefit the users themselves, either, in the form of more accurate search results. Policymakers should take into account that tech firms really don’t need all of that personal user data—and you don’t need to give up your online privacy to successfully surf the web, Chiou and Tucker conclude.