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Can privacy search engines help?

It’s hard to imagine life without the search engine. Most of us use a search engine of some kind multiple times every day, whether to find out some news, trying to find an item we want to buy, information about a destination or to find out the latest exploits of our favourite actor. But search results can come at a cost to our privacy. So what alternatives are there?

Search Privacy Blog

Search engines have become as necessary as running water and just as ubiquitous. Things would seem hard without them, being so easy to turn to at any time to find almost any piece of knowledge you’re looking for, a product you want to buy or up to the minute news from anywhere on the planet.

But, even though search engines are a necessity of modern life, there is a downside to many of them. The first problem is that search engines can compromise your privacy by collecting data on what you search for, every click you make and the journey you take from one website to another, recording your interests, what influences you, and other information including:

  • Source IP address
  • Which browser you're using
  • Location
  • Unique identifier (stored in browser cookies)
  • Search queries

It’s personal

Information you enter into a search engine could be highly personal. For example, you might have a health concern and be searching for a particular medical condition. Similarly, your search history can reveal a lot about your political views or stances, your employment status, your favourite band, film, book, cuisine or anything else. All this data gets collated and used to build a digital profile of you, and that can be linked to your real identity. This information can easily be sold and shared in ways over which you have no control or even knowledge.

Echo chamber

The second problem with mainstream search engines is that the results you see are influenced by the search engine’s algorithm. That means that the results you get from a search are filtered, possibly constrained and even censored to a degree. There is a danger that you begin to see only what the search engine wants you to see, in a narrower and narrower view - the echo chamber. You might feel that is what you want to see, but it’s important to be aware of the restricted view of the world it may give you. It’s difficult to see what level of filtering, manipulating or blocking of information is going on in the background that impacts what you actually see.

Many alternative search engines are just ‘window-dressing’ of the large, established firms and that leads to the same kind of problems outlined above. So if an alternative search engine is built on the back of Microsoft's Bing or Google, it will yield the same results.

If any of this concerns you, you might like to consider turning to a private search engine.

Private search engines

An alternative to the mainstream search engines such as Google or Bing are independent search engines that use their own ‘crawlers’, the tech that goes looking for results. Having said that, quite a number of the so-called ‘private’ search engines still rely on tapping into results from, for example Microsoft, but some will use more than one source to provide search results, whilst hiding your IP address for example. These are also known as ‘metasearch engines’. A few private search engines actually crawl the internet themselves to generate results. Some are in the middle and get their own results combined with taking in results from the big players.

Here are a few of the private search engines, in no particular order.

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo (DDG) is one of the better known ‘independents’ and has built quite a reputation around privacy and not tracking your online activity. It generates search results from more than four hundred sources. It doesn’t store IP addresses. However, it was reported in May 2022 that DDG had made an exception for Microsoft that enables Microsoft to track use of its browser, the result of the agreement for DDG to access Microsoft's search engine results. So, that’s quite a dent in the reputation of DuckDuckGo. On the other hand, if you're not using a Microsoft browser then DDG might still work for you.

Brave

Brave has had a secure browser for some time, but has now introduced Brave Search which uses its own web crawler so keeps itself completely free of Google and Microsoft et al.

SearX

SearX is customiseable so that you can choose which search engines to get results, whilst respecting your privacy. Also, SearX allows you to control which search engines it pulls results from.

SwissCows

SwissCows is a private search engine based out of Switzerland and they claim to have a focus on privacy and security of the user. They claim not to track and all their principal infrastructure, servers etc is inside their own facility. Most of its search results come from Bing. The company expresses passion for family values - good for many but some have criticised it for censorship for blocking certain adult content. They are funded through donations because they do not allow the passing of any data to advertisers.

MetaGer

MetaGer is a metsearch company based in Germany. Each search result indicates the source it came from. They offer filters to search by including date and language and also the ability to view anonymously. They protect users’ identity by converting search requests into anonymous queries that go via a proxy server, and it also shortens IP addresses, keeping you private.

Mojeek

Mojeek is completely independent by using its own crawler to generate results to search queries, keeping away from Google or Bing. It claims to be the “first ever no tracking/privacy oriented search engine.”

Qwant

Coming from France, Qwant is a private search engine and promises to protect user privacy by not tracking and keep people from getting stuck in the echo chamber. Qwant mostly gets its search results from Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Being from Europe they operate under strict EU GDPR rules around data.

However, it’s worth noting that with regard to Microsoft, Qwant “may also collect and transfer to this partner your full IP address.” Under GDPR, Microsoft must delete that data after 18 months.

Protect your data

There are often times when we need to use search engines and using Google and Bing amongst others is commonplace for most people. They do gather your data. The more times your data is captured and potentially shared, the greater the risk of it getting either lost or stolen and falling into the wrong hands, which can result in you becoming more vulnerable to scams.

So whilst it’s good to think about what browser you use to protect your privacy, it’s also worth considering getting your personal information deleted from companies that have it, including mainstream search engines. With Rightly Protect, you can find who has your data and then you can get it deleted quickly and for free.