Search histories not so cut and dried

ZARA BAXTER
Last updated 10:26 28/11/2012

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OPINION: CRIMINAL INTENT

How revealing are your Google or Bing (or DuckDuckGo for that matter) searches?

In a recent United States case where a mother was acquitted of the drowning death of her daughter, new evidence came to light after the trial that on the day of her daughter's disappearance her computer had been used to google the term "foolproof suffocation". Sounds pretty damning, doesn't it?

But it's more complicated than it first appears. I googled "foolproof suffocation" after I read about the case. I google a lot - sometimes to answer people's questions online, sometimes because I just like to know stuff, sometimes because the Google autocomplete looks more interesting than whatever I had been about to type, and sometimes because I'm researching for a fictional short story. Some of those searches would, if used in a criminal investigation, look pretty suss. But I've committed no crime simply by searching.

Connecting a search to a crime is tricky. Who typed in the search terms? Did they open the link? Was it open long enough to read? Did they sit at the keyboard to read it?

Our browsers and computers can reveal some of this, but not all of it. For example, Chrome can save all of your searches and open browser tabs across all of your devices, if you sign into your account. If you also log into your Gmail account, it strongly suggests you're the one with all those search queries. But, if you're like me, you don't sign out of your Gmail - if someone else picked up my laptop in my house, they could search for all kinds of things that would be linked to me.

It's worth noting that these days most browsers have "incognito" or "private" browsing, which hides your search terms and opened tabs from anyone else using your computer - just remember to close them once you're done.

Ctrl-Shift-N opens an Incognito window in Chrome

Ctrl-Shift-P in Firefox opens Private Browsing

Ctrl-Shift-P in Internet Explorer opens InPrivate browsing.

BEST OF THE YEAR

It's less than a month till Christmas, and it's worth noting that according to research by Nielsen, an iPad is the most-desired gift this year. Not all of us can afford one, though. Still, it's worth knowing that Facebook now has a gifts system, and that you can also now buy iTunes credit for friends using that service.

At PC World, we rounded up our 40 best tech products, 10 best games and top 10 apps for the year. You can read about it in more detail in the New Zealand PC World Dec 2012/Jan 2013 issue, but here's a few items you might consider for under your tree.

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TOP PRODUCTS

I've talked about the FitBit before and both the FitBit Ultra ($150) and the Nike+SportWatch GPS ($220) fitness trackers made it on to our top 40. For the gamer in your life, a new mouse might be just the thing - we ended up with three in our top 40, including the relatively affordable Corsair Vengeance M60 ($89). Printers aren't an exciting present, but $99 will buy you a good multifunction printer - the MFC- J430W by Brother.

TOP GAMES

Halo 4 is a science fiction first-person shooter, the latest in a hugely popular Xbox 360 series. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is an updated and shiny-new remake of a PC game from 1994, and it's a fantastic resource- management and combat strategy game that has you facing down alien invaders. If you have an MMO fan in your family, consider Guild Wars 2 - it's the friendliest little fantasy multiplayer game out there.

TOP APPS

Angry Birds Star Wars, the newest in the Angry Birds franchise, is a lot of fun. If you're after something more productivity focused, consider Things 2.0 for iPad. It costs a lot ($25), but it's a really solid to-do list and task manager that supports David Allen's Getting Things Done system. For those wanting something creative, Paper, also for iPad, is lovely for hand-sketches - I use it for mind-mapping and rough designs.

Zara Baxter edits New Zealand PC World and has reviewed gadgets for 15 years.

- The Dominion Post

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