By taking some basic -- and not-so-basic -- precautions, you can minimize your exposure to bad guys, wherever and whoever they are. Read on to learn about things you can do to minimize the security risks involved in using Google, whether for search or for one of its myriad other online services.
For good measure, we've included two levels of advice on how you can protect yourself:
* "Defcon 2" (good security) tips are things you can do with the tools already at your disposal to keep yourself safe against typical attacks -- but not against a determined attacker.
* "Defcon 1" (best security) tips -- a.k.a. "the celebrity solution" (steps to take if you have, or intend to have, a highly visible public profile) -- offer far more security but are far less practical and often require using third-party tools.
In the end, only you can determine what trade-offs between security and convenience make sense for you.
Risk 1: Search data and metadata
If you visit Google's Web History page, you can see every single Google search you've run, while signed into your Google account, for years. And it's not limited to text searches -- you can also see your history of Google image searches, Google video searches, Google Maps searches and so on. This data is stored by default; users must activate Web History to access it.
Google uses this information for a number of benign purposes, such as fine-tuning its search algorithms and determining wider patterns in Web searches for its Google Trends page. But however useful it is to the company, it's probably a safe bet that you don't want anyone to see every search you've ever done.
The simplest thing you can do to prevent the accumulation of search data is to make sure you're logged out of your Google account before searching. If you're logged in, your e-mail address will show up in the upper right-hand corner of Google's home page, search results pages or any Google Web page you're on.
Also, turn off Google's Web History. From the upper-right corner of Google's home page, choose Settings --> Google Account settings, click "Edit" next to "My Products" in the left-middle of the page, and click "Remove Web History permanently." (If you don't see this option, it means you never initially activated Web History.)
This will unsubscribe you from Google's Web History service and erase all the specific data linking your account to your searches from Google's servers. Google will still keep data associating your searches with your IP address for nine months and with other nonpersonal information for 18 months, but this data is not specifically linked to your identity.