Is there a surefire way of protecting your privacy on the web? The quick answer: no. The somehow longer answer: it depends.
Even if you’ve embraced the idea of transparency, whether because you think it has merit or because you gave up, you still may feel uneasy about Google’s data-mining powers. And not just Google’s; everybody and their sister can run a robust dedicated server for a couple hundred dollars, and if their application is popular, you can bet it is so because the proprietor has a good grasp of visitor tracking.
Google et al are mining customer data to make up for the lack of knowledge they can’t possibly have: your living context. Whatever you type into the search box represents your idea or request that you are making at that time, and its aggregated history creates a portrait that might represent you fairly well. But – it’s in the past. There’s a limit to what predictive analytics can do with past data.
And do customers want their providers to know their living context? Sure, some fork over a lot of personal data in exchange for deals of questionable value (like the CZK100 coupon some operators offer to PAYG customers by way of compensation for their names and addresses); others choose the opposite approach and use tools such as Tor or TrackMeNot that either hide or obfuscate your trail on the web.
I happen to believe that a (hypothetical for now) VRM infrastructure would alleviate the need of businesses to operate massive data stores when their business isn’t IT at all; by removing guesswork from the relationships and letting customers signal very precisely what they want. What I believe or not is of questionable value, however; this infrastructure doesn’t exist yet.
Paradoxically, though, the best way to minimize intrusion is to be as open as possible. If you have an online persona (blog, Twitter account, etc.), why not make it a true representation of who you are? There are proven benefits to that; starting with your career but not ending there. Instead of hiding, put out something you’ve created that’s of real value to other people. Create and share.
The need for privacy (not just) on the web is real. Many people (dissidents in oppressed countries, children) have a genuine need to protect their presence and activities on the web. For the rest of us, though, I suggest letting go of the paranoia and only protecting what is absolutely worth protecting. What you type into Google may or may not fall into that category. Most often it won’t.
Invest the time and effort you’d spend there into something valuable that you don’t want to hide but show and share instead.