Who Knows I Like Jelly Beans? An Investigation Into Search Privacy

Authors: Daniel Kats (NortonLifeLock Research Group), David Luz Silva (NortonLifeLock Research Group), Johann Roturier (NortonLifeLock Research Group)

Volume: 2022
Issue: 2
Pages: 426–446
DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/popets-2022-0053

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Abstract: Internal site search is an integral part of how users navigate modern sites, from restaurant reservations to house hunting to searching for medical solutions. Search terms on these sites may contain sensitive information such as location, medical information, or sexual preferences; when further coupled with a user’s IP address or a browser’s user agent string, this information can become very specific, and in some cases possibly identifying. In this paper, we measure the various ways by which search terms are sent to third parties when a user submits a search query. We developed a methodology for identifying and interacting with search components, which we implemented on top of an instrumented headless browser. We used this crawler to visit the Tranco top one million websites and analyzed search term leakage across three vectors: URL query parameters, payloads, and the Referer HTTP header. Our crawler found that 512,701 of the top 1 million sites had internal site search. We found that 81.3% of websites containing internal site search sent (or leaked from a user’s perspective) our search terms to third parties in some form. We then compared our results to the expected results based on a natural language analysis of the privacy policies of those leaking websites (where available) and found that about 87% of those privacy policies do not mention search terms explicitly. However, about 75% of these privacy policies seem to mention the sharing of some information with third-parties in a generic manner. We then present a few countermeasures, including a browser extension to warn users about imminent search term leakage to third parties. We conclude this paper by making recommendations on clarifying the privacy implications of internal site search to end users.

Keywords: privacy policy, web tracking, measurement

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