Search Engine Giants Know Way More Than You Probably Knew
Search engines are unique because they have become a near-necessity for anyone browsing the web. Despite internet users making more than 6.5 billion searches per day across all search engines, most people are in the dark about how they actually work.
While people browsing the web are simply looking for information, or a certain webpage, Google uses all the data from these searches and internet use to understand people’s behavior. Although Google makes it clear that they encrypt your data for security and privacy, the fact that the data is transmitted at all makes many people uneasy.
What is Search Privacy?
Want to see something creepy? Click around in your Google History and look at the information that Google tracks. Not only will you see anything you’ve ever searched for, you will see all the places you’ve ever been signed into Google. This includes your drive to work in the morning, and that’s just the beginning.
USA Today explains:
With that mountain of information, Google can tell a lot about you: where you live, your hobbies, age, health problems, religion and more.
In October 2016, ProPublica reported that Google quietly got rid of its ban on combining online ad tracking with users’ names. Prior to this change, Google kept information like users’ names and Gmail addresses separate from browsing and search information.
The information collected and stored each time you make a search includes:
- Your IP Address
- Time & Date of Query
- Search Terms
- Cookie ID — This cookie is deposited in your browse and allows search engines to uniquely identify your computer.
How Should You Protect Search Privacy?
Choose Your ISP Carefully
Most ISPs (internet service providers) harvest user data. A group of smaller providers recently wrote a letter opposing the changes in the FCC’s privacy rules allowing ISPs to harvest and sell this data. Do some research to determine how your provider uses your data. Unfortunately, many people are stuck with only one or two choices for broadband providers.
ISPs, along with search engines, hope to use the data they acquire to reach customers with more targeted advertisements. Ars Technica explains that ISPs want to become “advertising powerhouses,” on the same level as Google and Facebook.
Use A VPN
VPN, or virtual private networks, allow you to connect to the internet through a remote (or virtual) server. As a result, the data sent between your device and this server is securely encrypted. Using a VPN gives you privacy by hiding your internet behavior from both your ISP and any other group that may be tracking your browsing information. These also work to access blocked websites, that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to due to internet filters at school or work.
There are quite a few solid options out there for VPNs. They typically cost between $5–10 per month. It can be handy to have a VPN, though, if you need to remotely access a server or a website that isn’t available, while travelling.
Which Search Engines Protect Privacy?
Many of these search engines actually use results from the search giants, like Google, Yahoo, or Bing. Rather than allowing these search engines to track your searches, they encrypt your data to keep your searches private. These privacy-centric search engines don’t log your IP address or any of your searches.
These search engines simply have a different business model than other search engines. Rather than making money by selling data, these engines profit from ads displayed on their site or affiliate marketing sales.
DuckDuckGo is probably the most well-known alternative search engine. Its CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, said, “if the FBI comes to us, we have nothing to tie back to you.” Searches are sourced mostly from Yahoo. One cool feature of DuckDuckGo is what it calls “bangs”. Users can directly search other sites, like Amazon, Wikipedia, Yelp or Youtube, by starting their query with an exclamation mark!
Search Incognito protects your privacy by detecting searches that may be tracked and tied to your personal information. It intercepts those searches and redirects them to Search Incognito’s privacy-enhanced search engine which will be set to your default search engine. Search Incognito is supported by sponsored ads featured on our search results page.
Search Encrypt is unique because, while you can use it as a “normal” search engine, it changes how other search engines work. If you want to use Google as your search engine, you can do so with Search Encrypt. Installed as a browser extension, it automatically avoids any searches that may track you. It redirects your search to its own results page that is completely secure so your search stays private. Search Encrypt encrypts your searches locally that even your browser history will expire after 15 minutes.
StartPage uses results from Google, which is a good thing if you prefer Google’s result without the tracking. Ixquick, which is an independent search engine that uses its own results, developed StartPage to include results from Google. Its features include a proxy service, URL generator, and HTTPS support. The URL generator is a unique feature that eliminates the need for cookies. It remembers your settings in a privacy friendly way.
Beyond these, there are many “privacy-based” search engines out there that work well. A quick Google (or, uh…DuckDuckGo) search should turn up a good list.
Search Engine Privacy Issues
People working on the security side of technology recognize that the security tech realm isn’t where it should be. Much of the sensitive data that is stored is stored forever, even though it may no longer be useful or relevant.
The majority of our communication data now is tracked in some way. If this information is always available, some one is always at risk of having confidential data leaked or hacked. Search engine data falls victim to the same risks.
Most search engines use individual tracking. This means they track information about your internet usage and other behaviors. Although search engines may encrypt your data on their side, someone with access to your computer could still find information.
Another issue with search engine privacy is the sheer volume of data each must process. Google processes over 3.5 billion searches per day. If just .01% of the search data is compromised, that equates to 350,000 searches. In terms of big (enormous) data, 99.99% is not good enough.