The use of a private search engine such as StartPage or DuckDuckGo is becoming more and more important. Many privacy-oriented alternatives typically take advantage of the big search engines to return results, but proxy search queries so that Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft don’t know who did the search. In other words, they only see that the request was searched, not the individual who searched for it.
These privacy search engines promise not to save your IP address or any search you do, unlike Google and the other search engine giants. If you want to enjoy the benefits of fast access to information provided by a search engine without giving up your privacy, read on.
What does Google know about me?
The problem with most search engines is that they spy on you. It’s their business model – to find out as much about you as possible, to deliver highly targeted ads right in your browser window.
Google has even recently dropped its moratorium on combining what it learns by scanning your emails with what it learns about you through your research. So much the better for spying on you. The information typically collected and stored each time you search includes:
- Your IP address
- The date and time you made the request
- Query search terms
- A cookie ID
A cookie is placed in the cookie folder of your browser which uniquely identifies your computer. With it, a search engine provider can trace a search request on your computer.
This information is generally transmitted to the requested web page and to the owners of third-party banner ads displayed on this page. As a result, when you surf the Internet, advertisers can create a (potentially very embarrassing) profile of you.
Of course, if Google, Microsoft and Yahoo !, etc. know you a lot, this information can (and often does) go to the police and the NSA. If you find this worrisome, it’s a good sign that you should consider an alternative to Google.
Indeed, it is only recently that evidence has emerged showing how Yahoo is working with the NSA to betray its users to the intelligence service. Naughty ugly.
Google’s transparency report on the number of user data requests received and the number (at least partially) you have accessed.
The filter bubble: what the Internet is hiding from you
An additional advantage of using a search engine that does not follow you is that it avoids the “filter bubble” effect. Most search engines use your old search terms (and the things you “like” on social media) to profile you. They can then return results that they think will interest you.
This can only result in receiving search results that match your point of view, and it locks you into a “filter bubble”, where you cannot see other views and opinions as they have been demoted in your search results.
Not only does this prevent you from accessing the richness of texture and the multiplicity of human contributions, but it can also be dangerous because it can confirm prejudices and prevent you from seeing the “big picture”.
The best private search engines
DuckDuckGo is “The search engine that swears not to follow you”. Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo, said that “if the FBI comes to us, we have nothing to attach to you.”
It’s a Company based in the United States and is the the most popular and the most prominent privacy search engines. The research comes mainly from Yahoo, with which DuckDuckGo maintains solid relationships.
This is very concerning given recent revelations about his links to the NSA, but DuckDuckGo continues to promise that it does not collect or share personal information.
- DuckDuckGo offers research suggestions when you type a query.
- The research returns are fast.
- This includes image and video search returns.
- The presentation of the results is very clear.
- Search filter categories include web, images, videos, products, meanings, definition and news. Filters displayed are adaptive, and DDG will initially display the results in the filter category it deems most appropriate for the search terms. Depending on the filter selected, DuckDuckGo may display previews of images, videos or Wikipedia at the top of the search page or in a box to the right of the results.
- Ads can also be displayed to the right of the search results. Paid ads are clearly identified as such, discrete and never mixed with “pure” research returns.
- However, image results can only be filtered by size (small, medium, large).
- The video results display a thumbnail preview. YouTube videos can be played directly from DDG website, but a warning alerts you that these will be followed by YouTube / Google.
- Results can also be filtered by country and date (Anytime, Past Day, Past Week or Past Month).
- Subjectively, I find the quality of DuckDuckGo research is very good. I have seen complaints, however, from others who do not find them as good as those from Google. This is one of the reasons why “bongs” are so useful (see below).
Here we can see both the context filter in the actual discrete ads (auto-direct to products) and DDG
How it makes money
DuckDuckGo displays advertisements next to his search results. These come from Yahoo as part of the Yahoo-Microsoft search alliance. By default, when advertisers open a Bing Ads account, their ads automatically rotate through all Bing distribution channels, including DuckDuckGo
But above all, these ads are not targeted (they are displayed according to your search terms). And as already indicated, they are clearly marked and are displayed separately from “pure” search returns.
DuckDuckGo is is part of the affiliate programs of Amazon and eBay. When you visit these sites via DuckDuckGo and then make a purchase, it receives a small commission. No personally identifiable information is given in this way, however, and this does not affect the ranking of search results.
DuckDuckGo declares that it does not collect or share any personal information.
- An affiliate code can be added to some e-commerce sites (for example, Amazon and eBay), but this does not include any personally identifiable information.
- Being based in the United States means that DuckDuckGo is subject to pressure and government laws like FISA and the Patriot Act. This means that the U.S. government may require DuckDuckGo to start recording user activities. And prevent the company from notifying users of this fact via a Gag command.
- DuckDuckGo uses Amazon servers. Again, this is an American company, subject to pressure from the United States government.
- Security report of the Qualys SSL laboratories: A +
Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, contacted me regarding this article, trying to reassure us once again that DuckDuckGo is concerned about confidentiality and does not keep any data.
In addition to its rather nifty context filters, the most striking feature of DuckDuckGo is “fringe”.
They allow you to find other websites quickly and easily. For example, by typing! Guk before a search query, Google search results will be returned and typing! A, you will search for the Amazon store.
Note that a fringe brings you to the site in question. Searches are not mandated, so you lose an element of privacy if you hit Google directly. Fortunately, there is a solution. You can combine bangs with Startpage.com (see review above) by tapping! S or! Sp, and because Startpage.com uses Google, you can have the best of both worlds.
DuckDuckGo offers an attractive and easy to use interface, although some prefer Google to search results mainly based on Yahoo.
Hitting is a lethal feature, however, and that goes a long way towards clearing this problem. Remember that if you want to query Google and protect your privacy, it makes sense to log on to StartPage.com with the search results! S or! Sp for Google in privacy instead of going directly to Google.
It is therefore not surprising that DuckDuckGo is so popular. But the fact that it is an American company should be cautious.
Less known, but fast traction gain with the security community is SearX. Not only SearX fully open source, But It is easy to install and run your own instance of it.
There is a official SearX public body, or you can use one of the many public bodies managed by volunteers. But what SearX really is run your own instance. This makes SearX the only metasearch engine where you can be 100% sure that no journal is kept!
- By default, SearX exploits the results of a large number of search engines.
In preferences, users can modify the search engines used
- Search suggestions are not offered
- Searches can be filtered by the following categories: General, Files, Images, Computers, Map (using OpenStreetMap), Music, News, Science, Social Media and Videos. They can also be filtered by time.
- There is no ads.
- Wikipedia entries are displayed to the right of the search results.
- There are no additional filters for images, although a preview will appear when you click on them.
- The video results display a thumbnail preview. By clicking on a video, you access the website where it is hosted. (e.g. YouTube or Vimeo).
- Search results can be downloaded as a .csv, .json file. or rss.
- As with Startpage, search results can be viewed by proxy. This will “break” many websites, but allow a very high level of privacy.
- The search results are as good as the engine selected. The official instance uses Google, Bing, Wikipedia, and a host of other premium engines by default, so the results are excellent.
There are no ads, search suggestions are listed to the right and, as with Startpage, you can proxy web pages
How it makes money
SearX is a open source project run by volunteers. On the official body, there are no on-site advertising and no affiliate marketing.
Because it is open-source, individual operators public SearX instances are free to present their own financial models. But I haven’t yet found a single instance that isn’t 100% ad-free and without affiliation.
- There is no way of knowing if a public SearX instance operator saves your searches. And that includes the official body.
- That said, there is no way to guarantee that DDG, Startpage or any other “private” search engine will not save your searches either…
- Therefore, if you are serious about privacy, you must configure your own SearX instance. In fact, setting up your own SearX instance on a server that only you directly control is the only way currently available to ensure that your searches are not saved.
- That made self-hosted SearX instances are by far the most secure search engines available. The documentation for installing your own SearX instance is available here.
- For occasional users, public SearX instances are unlikely to log your searches and are much less likely to be watched by people like the NSA than the other services mentioned here.
- Remember, however, that there is no way to be sure.
- Security report from Qualys SSL labs for searx.me (the official instance): A. Note that each SearX instance (public or private) is different in this respect.
As with Startpage, the possibility of website proxy is a feature that kills if you can live with it by breaking many websites that you visit.
For tech savvy privacy managers, a self-hosted SearX instance is the answer. Quite simply, nothing else is in the same league when it comes to knowing with certainty that your searches are not saved.
More casual users may also be surprised at the effectiveness of the software on public proceedings. My personal feelings are that these are much less likely to save your research or be spied on by the United States and other governments as DuckDuckGo, Startpage or Disconnect. But this is purely speculation.
the Company based in the United States made a name for himself with some great privacy-focused open-source browser extensions in recent years. One of them is open-source Disconnect the search add-on for Firefox and Chrome (a non-open source Android application is also available).
Also disconnect markets a Premium VPN and an online security application, with integrated search disconnection functionality. Please see my VPN Disconnection Review for more details on this.
- Searches are usually done from the browser add-on.
- You can select which of the three search engines to query: Bing, Yahoo or DuckDuckGo (default).
- Unlike the other privacy search engines dealing with this article, Disconnect does not display search results on its own website. The results are simply routed through the Disconnect servers to hide their origin, then opened in the web page of the selected search engine.
- Private browsing searches are supported.
How it makes money
Disconnect markets a Premium product, but the The Disconnect Search browser extension is free. he hides your IP address when searching but then sends you directly to the selected search engine.
This means that Disconnect does no affiliate advertising or marketing clean during a search.
- Disconnect is an American company and is therefore not a good choice for the more phobic of the NSA.
- The browser extension is open-source, but search requests can still be saved by Logout, because they are done via its servers.
- Disconnect hosts its service on Amazon servers.
- Security report from Qualys SSL laboratories: A (for the Disconnect.me website).
Disconnect Search browser extension provides a quick and easy way to hide your true identity while doing research using your favorite search engine. The fact that Disconnect is In the USA, however, is a major problem.
Startpage.com and Ixquick are managed by the same company. In the old days, Startpage.com returned results from Google, while Ixquick returned results from a number of other search engines, but not Google. The two services are now combinedand both return identical Google results.
Although it is no longer actively supported, the old Ixquick meta-search engine is still available on Ixquick.eu. Interestingly, although it is no longer actively supported, Startpage.com recently removed Yahoo’s results from the legacy search engine. It was in response to the news that Yahoo helped the NSA spy on its users.
- Suggestions are not offered that you type by default, but this can be enabled in the settings.
- Search returns are quick, but maybe not as fast as those of DuckDuckGo (this is a purely subjective evaluation).
- The presentation of the results is very clear.
- Searches can only be filtered by Web, Images and Video categories. A advanced search option is available which allows you to specify a variety of search parameters, and you can filter the results by hour.
- Ads are displayed above search results. They are clearly marked as ads and are not mixed with “pure” search results.
- The video results display a preview of the image. YouTube cannot be played directly on the Startpage website for privacy reasons and will open in a new tab.
- The search results are taken directly from Google and are therefore very good.
Ads are discreet but clearly labeled
How it makes money
Just like DuckDuckGo, Startpage.com earn money from ads and affiliate links.
These the ads are not targeted, clearly marked and are not mixed with the “real” search results. However, they are a little more visible than with DuckDuckGo.
- The start page is based in the Netherlands, which has strict privacy laws.
- It works co-located servers in the United States. These are owned and controlled by Startpage, and I am assured that they are protected from government spying. If that worries you, however …
- It is possible to use only non-American servers (or non-European servers).
- Web pages returned by searches can be proxied (see below).
- Startpage is the only privacy search engine that has been independently audited.
- Security report of the Qualys SSL laboratories: A +
The killer function of Startpage.com is that, rather than visiting a website directly, you can proxy the connection. If you select this option, then a proxy server managed by Startpage.com is located between your computer and the website.
This prevents the website from knowing your real IP address (much like a VPN) and from being able to use web tracking and fingerprint technologies to identify and track you. It also blocks malicious scripts.
I must say that this is a great feature and one that can significantly improve your privacy. Given its drawbacks, however, you probably won’t want to use it all the time.
With its new design, StartPage.com corresponds to DuckDuckGo in terms of prettiness and friendliness.
But thanks for being based in the Netherlands and having nothing to do with Yahoo, it should be more resistant to NSA spying than its American rival (if you specify non-American servers!). And the possibility to proxy web pages is an absolute doozy.
Peekier is a new search engine without newspapers. There is not enough information about this service currently available for me to give it an appropriate assessment. It should however be mentioned, due to the attractive and innovative way it displays the search results.
In an area where, if we’re honest, most search engines are quite similar, it’s great to see a different approach. So I think it’s worth reporting Peekier and keeping an eye on the service to see how it’s evolving.
Privacy search engines Conclusion
Using one of these service engines will greatly improve the privacy of your search. Above all, your searches will not be saved to help you create a profile that will be used to sell your products. All of the search engines that I have reviewed in this article are easy to use and work well.
Will these services protect your research from government surveillance (and from the NSA in particular)? In the case of American companies, it is safer to assume than not. But unless you do something very illegal, it may not concern you (even if it should be).
Home Page is not based in the United States, has been independently auditedand allows you to access websites with high confidentiality thanks to its proxy function. I So it’s a much better choice for private heads than DuckDuckGo.
Public SearX instances are less likely to be monitored than other high-level search engines, but they can be. It is also likely that you will not know anything about their operators. Running your own SearX instance on hardware directly under your control is, however, an extremely secure and private solution. And so this is only one that I can recommend to serious privacy fanatics.
The fact that SearX has an excellent interface and returns results on the button of all the major search engines is the icing on the cake.
A note on the start page
Please note that since this page was first written, the start page has been acquired by Privacy One Group, which raises concerns about the levels of privacy it can offer. Since then, many concerns have been addressed, but we will continue to monitor the situation closely.