How Search Engines Track Your Data + Being Safe Online


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Speakers: Samantha Pennington, Founder at Oree Virtual, and Tameika Hannah

Audio Edited by: In the Shadows

Edited Audio Transcript:

Samantha: You used to be able to trick search engine algorithms, but that was way back in the day. Nowadays, they’re very complex. They’re very smart. And their ultimate goal is to get you exactly the best results you’re looking for. So your search engine results are really catered to you.

If you ever feel like you search for something online and you’re like, “Oh my God, this knows something about me” and you’re kind of freaked out about it: They do. That’s how search engine algorithms work. That’s how they get you such good search engine results—because they know where you’re at, where you’ve been, what you’ve searched for before. You know, it all kind of depends on the information you’re giving to [DeeDee the cat 🐈 interjects with a big meow] the algorithm.

And you can block the algorithm from getting some of that information.

Tameika: I was about to say, I was wondering, do I [block the algorithm] a lot? But also what if you clear your [search] history? 

Samantha: So it really depends on which search engine you’re using. Like, if you’re using Google and you’re signed into your Google account when you’re searching and you have… like, let’s say you’re on your phone and you’re searching on Safari, your browser is Safari. You’re searching with Google on Safari, you have given Safari access to your location, and you’re signed into your Google account. Well now your Google account is going to be able to track all of that location history because you have given it that information.

However, if you are not signed into your account, if you have a VPN on, if you do not give Safari access to your location history—Google’s algorithm is not gonna have that information.

If there’s something you want to search and you either just want it to be private or you don’t want it to skew your search engine algorithm, you can open a private browsing window and that [search] information is then not tracked.

Or you can use a search engine like DuckDuckGo that doesn’t store and use that kind of information. 

Tameika: I use DuckDuckGo, and I hope it doesn’t [store my information], but also sometimes I’m like, “Boy, I wish I really had better results than this.”

Samantha: Yeah, exactly. That’s the thing. When people will be like, “Oh my god, it’s taking all my information,” I’m like, but also, don’t you like that it knows exactly what you’re asking for? Even when you’re not asking very well

And that’s why [your search engine] works so well. It’s because it’s tracking all the information. So just, it’s really a balance for me. I am private and I do want to be safe online and I try to keep that in mind when I do things, but also I want [my search engine] to work.

I like my algorithm to work for me and so there are certain things I don’t mind. I don’t mind that it has my search history because I know that’s going to give me more catered results to my specific interests and needs. And I like that. 

Tameika: Okay. 

Samantha: So it’s really a balance, but most people don’t know any of that and they just give all their information.

Tameika: You just mentioned being safe. I think that’s a whole other discussion. Besides, you know, the the location history and even search history—it is about being safe. Yeah, so no, that’s a lot of information, a lot of great information because now I’m like:

Okay, maybe for certain things I search for, maybe I should keep certain websites available to where I can have better results.

Samantha: Yep. Yeah. And if you really don’t want [your search information] to be tied with you, open a private window and turn on a VPN. Or use a public computer instead of your private computer. I’m a huge proponent of technology.

Tameika: Oh yeah a VPN. I keep a VPN on.

Samantha: Yeah, keep a VPN on. It changes your location history, basically, kind of—it changes your IP.

Tameika: But then sometimes I find out with the VPN, too, like, ‘Oh, why is it blocking certain websites?’ You know? So it’s interesting also with that. It’s like, okay, so sometimes I feel like I can use it and sometimes I’m like, it’s really not helping. 

Samantha: Yep. I have to turn it off. With the work that I do every day, I have to turn it off a lot cause some [websites] just don’t work. And then I’ll turn it back on when I’m going to go put in like my bank information or payment details—I’ll always make sure to turn my VPN on.

I don’t leave browser tabs open that have private detailed information. If I’m going to the IRS [website] and I’m going to be inputting my social security number, I’m not going to leave [that site open]. I’m going to sign out as soon as I’m done and I’m not going to leave that tab open.

I’m a huge proponent of technology. I think that there are so many benefits. I think it’s a spectacular and wonderful thing. But with anything, you know, you should really understand what are the pros and the cons, what are the risks.

Just like driving a car, you should understand: what are the dangers of being online, what can potentially go wrong, so that you can make decisions on how to keep yourself safe.

And that’s where I see the real failing is. Technology has grown so quickly and developed so fast, but we have not instilled, at least in the United States, we haven’t instilled how to navigate the added risks or the new risks that open up through this technology.

There’s always been predators, for example, but now predators have greater access to kids who are on the internet. Before, you had a landline or a physical location. Well, now you also have a social media profile and an email. So it’s just with everything, in my opinion—maybe not with everything—but with technology, there are benefits and there are cons. And you really have to understand how they work in order to use them safely or use them in a way that works for you, but also isn’t like putting you at risk.

But people are not getting that comprehensive education.

This audio is an excerpt from the Black English Vernacular radio show. Listen to the full episode here: Black English Vernacular Episode 27

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