What Do Your Searches Disclose About Your Work?

When you use a search engine, you’re thinking aloud.  It’s almost as if you’re standing in the middle of Central Park or Hyde Park shouting, “Does anyone know anything about [X]?” In Central Park, at least, people are likely to ignore you and just keep walking.  What would happen, however, if someone stopped, paid attention, and made a note of your request?  And, what if they then noticed that other people were asking about [X] and that these people worked with you?  Could that someone reach the conclusion that you and your colleagues are interested in [X]? Now, what if X=Initial Public Offering, or X=Merger, or (more likely these days) X=Bankruptcy? What would that attentive person know about you and your work?

I’ve heard reports of investment bankers and lawyers around the world beginning their research assignments on popular internet search engines.  What if someone noticed that lots of people at a particular firm were interested in Company [Y] and the topic “initial public offering.”  That’s normally the kind of information that is considered highly confidential within a company, an investment bank or a law firm.  However, do our searches on public search engines, social media sites or commercial subscription databases reveal information to a careful observer that we don’t intend to disclose?  What could that observer do with that information?

Do you remember when Amazon reported on which books seemed popular in certain organizations?  (E.g., we’ve been selling lots of books on bankruptcy to people at the ACME Company.)   It is possible for providers of public search engines or commercial databases to gather this data and make sense of it.  Is anyone doing that now with respect to our searches outside the firewall?  Should we be doing something about that?

[Photo Credit:  pavel1998]