When you use popular search engines like Google or Yahoo to find something on the internet, the information you input is collected and built into a profile that helps those companies market products you may find interesting. Your favorite search engines justify this practice by claiming that it allows them to learn about your interests and offer more efficient responses as a result.

That's well and good if you don't care about privacy. But if you do, a team of researchers has developed a new protocol based on cryptographic tools to distort the user profile generated by internet search engines, in such a way that they cannot save the searches undertaken by internet users and thus preserve their privacy.

Detailed in a new article published in Computer Communications, the protocol has already been tried in closed (research centre intranets) and open (internet) environments, "and the results allow us to be optimistic with the global implementation of the model". The researchers are now working on the development of a final user version and trust that it will soon be easily integrated into the main platforms and browsers.

There currently exist types of software which provide anonymous navigation, such as the Tor network, but the new system "offers a clear improvement in response time". Nevertheless, Alexandre Viejo, one of the paper's co-authors, acknowledges that the application of the protocol delays searches slightly, "but it can be perfectly assumed by the user".

Citation: Jordi Castellà-Roca, Alexandre Viejo, Jordi Herrera-Joancomartí. 'Preserving user's privacy in web search engines', Computer Communications, 2009, 32: 1541–1551