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Anonymous search engines - Better privacy protection against weblining and other misuse of our personal data

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Anonymous search engines or private search engines offer better privacy in that they do not record any identifying information about you, and do not use or share your data for marketing purposes. Hold on a minute, I hear you say, Then what do normal search engines do with our data?

Anonymous Search
Better Privacy Protection

The revenue of all major (non-anonymous) search engines depends a lot on data that is gathered about users through whatever means possible. Search engines and social media sites are in fervent competition to harvest as much user data as possible to feed their advertising contracts; data which covers everything from our age, gender and location to our profession, shopping preferences and hobbies. These firms even mine information on our finances, our health, our politics and our faith. By profiling individuals' lives with as much detail (and intrusion) as possible, search engine providers are able to sell advertising space at a much higher value, since commercial products, services and even political ads can be matched closely to the people they are most relevant to. And if they don't sell advertising space, in some cases they even sell the data itself.

This standalone industry of consumer profiling is largely sourced from the information we volunteer about ourselves through our searches, which is then cross-referenced by the browsing we do from and around them. It may even be married to information that we post on social media sites or that we include in our emails. Yes, even the content of our emails is used.

Ah, c'mon. What's the worse that can happen even if I have no Google search privacy at all? I just get ads come up about foot deodorant after I search under smelly feet?

Sadly, that's just the beginning of it. The consequences of this profiling go far beyond simple targeted advertising.

Weblining is the name given to the act of discriminating against internet users through information gleaned about them from their online behaviour, information that is in part sourced from user searches. The term weblining is a throwback to an old banking term from the 70s: Redlining – when moneylenders would draw red lines around sections of a map, and would not lend money to people with addresses inside those redlined sections. Simply put, it was discrimination based on geographic location.

Weblining takes this prejudice to a whole new level. When people apply for credit cards, health insurance, loans and mortgages, the associated companies have quick access to a whole range of digital information about these applicants. Web searches are among the most revealing and easily processed of these digital data sources – just think how much a health insurance company could glean about your medical condition from the health-related searches you have run in the past 18 months. In this way, companies that purchase weblining data from search engines can easily draw a red line around individual applicants based on the relevant facts they can glean from their searches.

It will be of little surprise if I now tell you that your searches are stored against your identity for a period of between 9 and 18 months – just long enough so that the information about you is up to date and valid for the variety of purposes it fulfills. Only after that period expires, when it becomes out of date and of less value to profile purchasers, is search data anonymized by the removal of key identifying information (although it has been argued that this supposed anonymization is in fact only partial, and the search company can still easily match the data to individuals).

how does an anonymous search engine provide privacy?

To put it simply, any search engine with privacy at its core allows you to conduct your searches safe in the knowledge that the data you enter will not be used against you. Different private search engines operate in different ways, but each of them promises not to record your IP address (one of the key identifiers used to track you), or to implant tracking cookies on your device. Most private search engines also offer a proxy service (and are therefore also referred to as a proxy search engine) so you will not betray your identity after you click on search results either.

what is the best search engine for privacy?

It is difficult to say which is the out and out best search engine for privacy because every private search engine or proxy search engine fulfills its anonymity promises completely. Therefore the merits of each one should be judged on criteria other than better privacy, and those criteria will be of different importance to different users. It is therefore up to you to try the privacy search engines out and determine which of them best suits your purposes.

The four engines which are built on principles of search engine privacy are Startpage, DuckDuckGo, Gibiru and UseStealth. All offer different anonymity and search features as detailed in the instructions and privacy statements found on their sites. A detailed comparison between the two most popular of these, StartPage and DuckDuckGo, can be viewed here: Privacy search engines compared. In this analysis, I place DuckDuckGo as the best search engine for privacy and usability, but StartPage comes in at a close second as it too provides excellent search engine privacy and performance.

how does a private search engine make its revenue?

In most cases by advertising too. But any search engine with privacy at the heart of its design is financially hampered by the fact it is unable to target adverts at its users – and targeted ad revenue is the basis for all search engines' business models. A privacy search engine will generally still sell some advertising space on its site, but this will be for generic ads only, not those tailored to the individual user. This of course places the advertising space at a much lower value to investors and we should therefore thank and support any search engine with privacy at the core of its design: they have crippled their income so that they may allow you to search in private.

Isn't there some way I can just do an anonymous Google search?

It is very difficult to do an anonymous Google search (through a proxy, for example) because, like Bing, Yahoo and others, the Google search engine is built primarily to track you in order to feed its advertising stream – offering you betterprivacy would undermine their business model. If you access Google through a web proxy, you will be able to hide your IP address, but this is no guarantee you will search in private: you can still give your identity away in other ways too. For example, if you are logged into Google at the time you do your search, your login cookies will betray your real identity. Then, there are web beacons, flash cookies and javascript leaks which can all be exploited to give away who you are if the site is determined enough to look. And most search engines definitely are.

Using an anonymous VPN to conduct searches will offer Google search privacy to a point. It will keep you anonymous from most of these identifying methods, but not all. For one, you would need to make sure you do not log in to your Gmail, YouTube or any other Google-owned service while doing Google searches. That and make sure you do not have a Google search bar installed (as it is designed to track your searches even when using another search engine in the device it is installed on). Your browser should also be configured not to accept any cookies whatsoever from the engine. But fear not – you will experience no great loss of service by switching from Google to an anonymous search engine. Depending on which you use, your private search engine will access Google (or Bing) for your searches anyway, so you will not find yourself deprived of the kinds of results you are used to.

what about google SSL?

As a final note relating to Google search privacy – the corporation does offer a Google encrypted search as dfault nowadays but Google SSL only protects your searches from monitors of your connection. This includes ISPs that may use hardware to packet sniff and monitor searches (which they are known to do – NebuAd used hardware sniffers in the servers of six ISPs over 2007 and 2008 to monitor and track all user searches). Google encrypted search will also prevent any hackers or snoops from seeing your searches over your local network/WiFi connections.

But Google encrypted is not an anonymous Google search provider; of course it does nothing to prevent Google itself from using your data for targeted advertising etc. It should also be noted that Google SSL is not the only search provider to offer encryption: any good anonymous search engine or proxy search engine will supply HTTPS to guard its connections, but with much betterprivacy in the management of your data to boot.

Written by: 
Robin Welles; expats team, internet security team