Last year, Google said it would start encrypting some search traffic for signed-in users who click on organic results. With the move, the company stopped passing along users' search queries through referrer headers.
The decision was significant because some people click on results after conducting vanity searches on their own names; users who did so inadvertently provided clues about their identities to Web site operators.
While Google's move was privacy-friendly for users, it wasn't necessarily in the best interest of publishers, marketers and other site operators who used to draw on referrer-header data in their search engine optimization efforts.
Regardless, whether site operators like it or not, that referrer header data is about to become even more scarce. Privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian reports today that Mozilla's Firefox will soon begin encrypting all Google searches by default. "This is a big deal for the 25% or so of Internet users who use Firefox to browse the Web, bringing major improvements in privacy and security," Soghoian writes.
He adds that query information will not just be kept secret from site operators, but also from Internet service providers and governments who use deep-packet inspection technology to monitor or censor search traffic.
Soghoian previously asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google for allegedly telling users that it would not reveal their personally identifiable information, but then passing along queries that in some cases included users' names. (The extent to which site operators can figure out when people are typing their own names -- as opposed to names of others -- into search query boxes has never been clear. Still, sites might be able to deduce the identities of at least some visitors based on the search queries.)
Web user Paloma Gaos also filed a lawsuit against Google in 2010 about the practice. That case is still pending in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California.