TrackMeNot, beating search engines with fake tracks


Is it possible to hide your search path on the web? In the wake of AOL’s apparent release of of details of users’ Internet searches, as well as reports of various search engines tracing the paths users leave online, more and more web tools emerge aimed at helping surfers to hide their tracks or to baffle their trackers. TrackMeNot is a Firefox extension that protects web searchers from surveillance and data-profiling by search engines. It masks user’s browsing activities without using encryption, but periodically issuing randomized search-queries to popular search engines, e.g., AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and MSN. It hides users’ actual search trails in a cloud of indistinguishable ‘ghost’ queries, making it difficult to aggregate such data into accurate or identifying user profiles. The creators, Daniel C.Howe, researcher at NYU’s Media Research Lab, and Helen Nissenbaum, an associate professor at NYU, were disturbed by the idea that enquires are sistematically monitored by corporations. TrackMeNot was therefore developed as an immediate solution, implemented and controlled by the users themselves. However according to the detractors of the project, the extension creates ‘random’ search terms by combining words from a very short wordlist in a pseudo-random way. It contains around fifteen hundred words – not nearly enough for the intended obfuscation to be effective. Also, the search entries are limited to two-word terms, which makes the extension’s effects even more redundant. The risk is to impose parasitic overhead on search engines thereby reducing their efficiency and performance. Could TrackMeNot, in the end, tastes like spam?
Valentina Culatti