As the U.S. government works to take self-admitted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden into custody, some Americans are trying to take back control of their privacy on the internet.
And they’re using a local search engine to do it.
DuckDuckGo, based in Paoli, Pa., offers users anonymous search – meaning search histories and user information are not stored by the search engine’s servers.
Since Snowden announced the existence of secret government programs to monitor phone and internet traffic, the site has seen a nearly two-fold jump in search traffic – resulting in record traffic.
“We were doing a little over 50 million searches a month before this and that’s likely to be well over 60 million, maybe closer to 70 million this month,” says founder Gabe Weinberg. The 34-year-old MIT grad expects search traffic to rocket towards 100 million by August.
Well-known search engines, like Google and Bing, store user data for internal use, ad delivery and can even opt to sell that information to third-parties. They’ve also been the target of subpoenas by U.S. government agencies seeking that user information.
Weinberg says DuckDuckGo does not record your computer’s IP address, which is a unique identifier assigned to each computer. Without that address and the search history that goes with it, there’s nothing to provide to law enforcement agencies.
“You’re typing in problems and things you’re researching about for your life that you wouldn’t necessarily post to your social networking sites about your financial, medical issues, anything,” he said.
DuckDuckGo launched in September 2008 and about a year later Weinberg made a commitment to keep users’ searches private. He says when it comes to tracking behavior online or private information, it’s not just the government people should be worried about.
“Most big tech companies are just trying to store as much information as they can on you with the hope that they can use it later to show better ads at you across other sites,” he said. Weinberg says some online data is even beginning to rear its head offline in risk assessments for insurance coverage.
“Smart” is how Dr. Rob D’Ovidio, an associate criminal justice professor at Drexel University, describes DuckDuckGo’s private search strategy. Dr. D’Ovidio researches computer crimes and trains law enforcement in digital forensics.
“DuckDuckGo offers the average user a smart alternative in this day of constant surveillance, including surveillance by the government, to protect their privacy,” he said. However, Dr. D’Ovidio admits search engine history most likely won’t be the first or second data targets of government agencies monitoring suspicious activity. He says they more often look at chat and email communications.
Dr. D’Ovidio also says the tech company is giving up additional revenue by not recording user data.
“There’s a downside to that from a business perspective,” he said. “Google’s not mandated in the United States to capture records. They do it for business purposes. It helps drive their advertising engine…they do it for customer service purposes.”
Weinberg says the company is still able to monetize the search by selling ads by search terms, without customizing them to users. Both men say regardless of the privacy features offered, users won’t use the site if they’re not delivered good results when searching.
“We use about 100 different sources and we draw on everything you can imagine with the exception of Google, but including Bing and Yahoo!,” Weinberg said. “So you shouldn’t be missing anything when you use DuckDuckGo.”
The fight over control of your privacy online is the next big issue that will be debated and fought over, according to Dr. D’Ovidio. He says the major search engines, might even take a page from DuckDuckGo to appease users.
“My assumption is you’re going to see Google, you’re going to see Bing…you’re going to probably see these types of companies offering these types of services,” Dr. D’Ovidio said. “I would assume, if they’re smart.”