I like Google. I think it gives better search results than any mainstream search engine. That said, I know it’s following me. It keeps records of what I search for, what sites I visit, and what I like to build a profile of me. It then offers me targeted ads and targeted search results. Sometimes that can be good. It saves me search time. Unfortunately, there are other times that I might not want Google to know so much about me.
If, for example, the government ever needs to find information about me, I’m sure they will stop at Google for a little help. And, make no mistake about it, Google will be only all too happy to comply. Here is the most recent data from Google showing requests for customer data within the U.S.
But requests for data are one thing and actually coughing up that data is another. So what percentage of these requests were acceded to? Here’s the chart that gives this information.
In other words, Google agrees to most of the data requests it receives (82%).
What data does it have on you? Quite a bit. You can get a copy of all the data Google has on you here. You can choose what information to look at. I chose the following, which comprised over 2GB of data.
But there is more to privacy than this. Google knows in advance what you are probably searching for. If you type in the first letter of a search, it will suggest frequently visited sites that begin with that letter. This can be convenient. It could also cause you problems.
Imagine, for example, your wife wants to look for a bread recipe, types in a ‘b’ and sees that ‘babes in bikinis’ is suggested. Busted! Sure, you can delete your history, but how many of us actually do that after each browsing session. Besides, Google will still keep your browsing information no matter what privacy steps you decide to take. They need it for advertising. But I understand. Google is a business and they need to make money. At this point in cyber history, selling personal information is the best way to get rich.
But what if you can use a non-tracking browser that uses the Google search engine? What if Google never knew who was browsing or what they were browsing for? That would certainly give the user much more privacy. Well, those search engines are here, and, in this post, I’ll suggest a few.
Private search engines protect your privacy by acting as an intermediary. You type your search terms into their search page and they go to Google for you. Google only sees the search engine address as the searcher. They don’t know the real person behind it.
As Google builds its profile about you, their algorithm begins to send you targeted search results. In short, they filter out any results they think you would not be interested in. This leads to the formation of what is called, a ‘filter bubble’. You will be isolated from results that conflict with your viewpoint. It is a strategy which, no doubt, can help magnify divisions within a culture. Private search engines will not do this. When they leverage Google, Google has no profile of you personally, so they must present all viewpoints in their search results.
For this post, I will look at three search engines which base their results on Google or Google and other search results (not including Yahoo) and which have high privacy features. These search engines are StartPage, Gibiru, and SearX.
Startpage uses Google search results. It does not offer suggestions as you type, but you have the option of turning this feature on in the settings menu. However, keep in mind that the suggestions will be Google’s suggestions so they could be biased.
You can browse for images and videos and videos will be shown in thumbnails. If you click on the thumbnail you will receive this message.
Some may also worry about using Startpage with servers in the U.S. because they worry that these servers could be compromised by law enforcement. Yes, that does happen. However, Startpage gives you the option of using only EU servers, not that these can be guaranteed to be safer, but they could be. Then again, there’s no guarantee that Startpage or any other private search engine will not keep logs that connect to your IP address, you simply have to trust that they won’t.
Startpage uses ads to make money. They appear at the top of the search result and are not as obvious as they are on some search engine results.
“Gibiru is the preferred Search Engine for Patriots.” At least that’s how the founder and CEO of Gibiru, Steve Marshal, markets it. It is a bare-bones search engine that uses Google results. It was designed by a former Google employee who became disenchanted with the way Google was manipulating personal information to make big profits. “Just as Google was forced by China to only show negative results for the web search Dali Lama and Tibet in an agreement that would allow Google to operate business in China, the same system of censorship and secret policing of citizens is developing now. Would you trust the government’s mainstream media to tell you the truth?” Some may call it paranoia, others may call it being cautious.
Gibiru uses featured ads to make money. They also seem to use your IP address to target you with these ads. In other words, they seem to, at least temporarily, store this information. They recommend incorporating their search engine into the Firefox browser for enhanced anonymity.
SearX is the most malleable of all private search engines. It is a metasearch engine, meaning that it aggregates search results from a number of search engines. The selling point of SearX is that you can choose which search engines you want to use. There are a number of other settings that you can use to personalize SearX.
By default, SearX does not autocomplete your search results; however, you can enable this feature and even choose which search engine you want to do the autocomplete function. All custom settings are saved in your browser, not on the SearX website. You can also filter search results in a variety of ways not offered by other private search engines. SearX is based on open source code so it does not give you any ads. It does, however, ask for donations. Nonetheless, you could make a good argument for SearX being the best search engine available anywhere, encrypted or not.
Other Notable Private Search Engines
Search Encrypt is often mentioned when people write about private search engines. It has the advantage of encrypting your search terms before it searches, thus, adding another layer of anonymity to your searching. On the other hand, it is not configurable. You get the search results it wants to give you, and, in my opinion, these are often lacking. Search Encrypt can be integrated with your browser (Chrome and Firefox), but users complain that it interferes with search results more than it helps. Some claim it acts more like malware, but this may be because it predetermines which sites are free of tracking and will not suggest them. It is supported by ads in the search results.
Qwant is a French-based private search engine which seems to be growing in popularity. Those who want to avoid U.S.-based servers may find it attractive. The search results are fair, but a multiple of filters can be applied. It does use autocomplete, but it is impossible to tell if this is biased, because it cuts out early when typing in a search phrase. It does offer paid ads mixed in among the search results and they are not all that obvious.
All of the private search engines mentioned in this post will protect your search results from being used to build a profile of you that can subsequently be sold to advertisers. Some simply offer more features than others. Just like a VPN, there is no way to ensure that they keep their end of the bargain, but if you find you are being targeted with ads through your searches, be suspicious. Keep in mind that once you click on a website in the search, you are on your own. The search engines only protect your searches from being monetized and nothing more. Add a VPN and even Tor browser into the mix if you are looking for the best privacy you can get. However, keep in mind that absolute privacy may still be unattainable.