Hey, have you heard that the US Federal government regularly spies on us? And by “us” I don’t just mean US citizens, since the government seems to be doing this all over the world. But this blog is not a rant against the politicians trampling the Constitution (after all, they’re probably watching as I type this!). What I want to tell you about today is a way that you can search the internet anonymously. Did you know that Google keeps a record of every search you do from their site? If you wonder about something you were searching for a few weeks ago, just log in to your Google account and go here (https://history.google.com/history/). You can look at your searches for the past 30 days by clicking on a date on the calendar.
There are two major factors in play here: search leakage and search history.
Search leakage is what happens when you do a search, and the search term that you used is passed on to the site that you clicked on from the search results.
For example, when you do a search for the phrase “cancer symptoms” and click on a particular site, such as WebMD, that site knows the phrase you were searching. That in itself would not be so bad…except for the fact that whenever you visit any website your computer reveals your IP address and other information that can be traced back to you individually. So that means somewhere out there your name could be connected with the phrase “cancer symptoms”.
Search history relates to the Google example above, where they keep a record of the searches you have done (and almost all search engines keep track of that).
When you search on a word or phrase, your computer’s IP address is revealed and this means that the search being done could be related to you. If you are logged in to your Google account at the time, then that search IS directly related to you.
Many search engines keep track of your search history in order to serve up more targeted advertising. This has been the standard procedure for a long time. If I search to find information on various running shoes, Google is going to start showing me ads from shoe manufacturers.
The big problem comes up when the search history is released. This release could be accidental (such as when a search engine server gets hacked and the data is revealed to outside parties or the public in general). Or the release could be a legal requirement, such as when law enforcement subpoenas the information as part of an investigation.
What if you are an aspiring writer, doing some research for your first novel – a murder mystery. You might have some suspicious-looking searches in your history, such as:
- untraceable murder weapons
- assassination cases
- how to hide a body
- crime scene investigation procedures
These are probably not things you would want investigators to find if they happen to get your search history! There’s an easy way to search on the internet. It’s a search engine called DuckDuckGo (http://www.duckduckgo.com).
DuckDuckGo takes care of both of the privacy problems I mentioned above. When you do a search on DuckDuckGo, there is no search leakage. They redirect your search to Google, Bing, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha and others, but they do not pass along the search terms that were used to create those results. So you are actually getting more results than if you just searched on a single one of those, such as Google. And the search engine won’t know what term you were searching on.
Regarding search history, it is true that the government or law enforcement agencies can require search engines to turn over the search history for any given user. However, the search engines are not required to keep that search history in the first place. Since DuckDuckGo does not retain any of your search history, they have nothing to turn over to the government or any other agency. This also means that if their servers are hacked into or otherwise compromised, your search history won’t be on display for the world to see – because there is no search history being stored. DuckDuckGo was just started in 2008, and their search traffic tends to rise whenever the news has stories about online privacy invasion. Not surprisingly, this past week was their best week ever in terms of website traffic. It seems that we the people are becoming less and less tolerant of the government sticking its nose in every nook and cranny of our lives when it has no legitimate reason for doing so.
And of course, my disclaimer: we are learning new information about secret surveillance almost daily. Is it possible that, even though this search engine doesn’t leak your search terms or store your search history, some government agency might already have the technology to track all of your searches anyway? Yes, I would say that is possible. In fact, I would even say it is quite probable. So if you are going to do any searches that could be embarrassing if made public, make sure you do it on your friend’s computer instead of your own!