Since former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked evidence of the security agency’s covert surveillance of millions of Americans to journalist Glenn Greenwald last year, online privacy has become one of the tech sector’s most contentious issues.

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Few issues in tech are as polarizing as online privacy, but the topic goes far beyond opinions about the security of personal data or how it should be used. In fact, online privacy (or the lack thereof) is shaping the future of search, whether you realize it or not.

Advertisers are desperate to plumb the depths of people’s personal lives in search of more accurate targeting, while many users are balking at how the monoliths of the tech sector are gathering, storing, and using their information. But what does the future hold, and should you be worried about how companies such as Google and Facebook are using your data?

Although millions of people continue to willingly hand over their personal data to Facebook and Google without question, increasing numbers of people are beginning to question whether their data is truly safe.

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Image via ireneogrizek.com

To assuage their concerns (and capitalize on the increasing desire for more secure online services), Apple and Google recently announced that the operating systems of their mobile devices would be encrypted by default. Encrypting user data means that information stored on such devices would be inaccessible to anyone but the user, even Apple and Google.

However, in what should have been hailed as a major step forward for the tech industry and privacy advocates, the move has instead raised been criticized and derided by lawmakers in Capitol Hill and across the country. Cathy Lanier, head of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, claimed that iPhones and Android devices will now become the preferred tools of pedophiles and hardened criminals, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also played the “think of the children” card.

These asinine comments were echoed by numerous other officials, including FBI Director James Comey, who said that individuals using an encrypted device were essentially placing themselves “beyond the law.”

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Apparently, not wanting law enforcement officials and three-letter agencies to have unrestricted access to your personal data automatically makes you a criminal.

There can be little doubt that law enforcement and the technology sector are likely to remain at loggerheads over whether user data is fair game or not. However, the privacy of the individual is not the only aspect of the debate. Indeed, the very future of search is predicated on users’ willingness to be tracked and monitored.

As I wrote in a previous post, Google Hummingbird was a huge leap for search, offering users increasingly personalized results that anticipate user queries based on prior activity, location, and numerous other factors. Doing so anonymously is impossible, and as recent evidence revealed, technology companies and the government have unprecedented access to your personal data.