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]

11 thoughts on “What Do Your Searches Disclose About Your Work?

  1. I see two issues. One is the gathering of the information. The second is attribution to a particular person. The second is obviously the most troubling.But the gathering of information can provide lots of interesting insights. Google has even opened up some of this information for public consumption. You should try out Google Trends: http://www.google.com/trendsI like this graph comparing the search results for the parties in the fall election:http://tinyurl.com/lptmbp

    1. Doug -Putting your compliance hat on, are there safeguards we should be taking to prevent breaches of confidentiality due to the attribution of search or general web activity to a person or a firm?- Mary

      1. People need to be aware that their online activity can be traced back to their company. The example that comes most to mind is editing your company's wikipedia page. They have gotten very good at tracing out this self-editing and subjecting it to close scrutiny.Using Google as a search should have little risk. It is a bit of the security by obscurity. They get so many searches that uncovering one that would reveal a confidential matter would seem nearly impossible.As you narrow down the search to a search within a site, then there is more risk. For example, I can see the searches made on my site. I can't attribute them back. But I could see “ABC merger with CDE” and come to a conclusion. Awareness is the first step. Google should be pretty safe. Others you need to address on case by case basis.

        1. Thanks for your good advice, Doug. It's great to have a risk management guy in the community!- Mary

  2. Good question, Mary. We tried just this approach of analysing queries in a big community of practice recently. The queries to the forum were already characterised topics because when you submit a search to this particular community of practice you have to choose which topic it is related to. We divided the topics into four quadrants;1. Few questions, lots of answers. These tended to be areas of common knowledge, where most people knew the answer and only a few new people did not. For these topics, as we could write guidelines or faqs2. Lots of questions, lots of answers. These were the important and evolving Knowledge topics where it was worth while setting up community meetings so that we can start to exchange and document best practice. 3. Lots of questions, few answers. These were the problem areas, where some more research or action learning was needed to start to develop solutions. 4. Few questions, few answers. Our assumption was that these are not particularly important areas, but that it was worth watching them in case they developed into problem areas.This was a very useful analysis and led to a greater understanding of the important evolving and problem topics within the community.

    1. Nick -I can see how this type of analysis could be hugely helpful for knowledge management purposes. And, when it happens behind the firewall, it probably is a safe and useful activity. Does the conclusion change when a third party is doing this analysis based on our activities outside the firewall?- Mary

  3. I don't know what raw data Google and the others make available, but if they attach IP addresses to search queries, it should be a fairly simple thing to do some grouping and generalizing, particularly if you are hunting specific topics. And Google at least will pay attention to who you are if you are logged into their services, so they at least can find out a lot about you if you do your searching there.Remember the issue a few years ago where ?Amazon? released some search queries that had IP addresses attached and an enterprising researcher was able to attach a specific person to their IP address, based on the things that were in her search queries? (How many ego searches do you do from home, for example.) I believe ?Amazon? apologized for releasing the identifying information.

  4. Mary-If the information can be gathered; it will be used. Thanks to Joe Hodnick at Law Librarian Blog ( http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/law_librarian_…) for this link: http://www.nextgov.com/countingtwitter/. Postings on Twitter can be gathered and some sense of what a particular organization is talking about can be gleaned:”Nextgov looked at a random sample of 100 tweets from 10 different government organizations to find out what “feds are talking about, 140 characters at a time” by performing word frequency analyses to generated clouds of the 40 most-used words in the following Twitter feeds”-Linda

  5. Unfortunately, a bad credit report can work against you in your search for employment. …. Do your own background check. If you want to see what an employer's … In addition, their prior knowledge gives them permission to disclose .

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