PRISM Break: The Search Engine

Now that we've started using Firefox - a browser that takes your privacy seriously - as our primary tool when surfing the internet, it's time look at one of the online services you probably use the most and how it handles your privacy: The Search Engine.

If you are like most internet users, you have a few sites you visit regularly: A social network or two, a couple of online newspapers and the odd community site. But whenever you need to search for information on the internet, a search engine is most people’s primary weapon of choice. Google is the undisputed heavy weight champion of internet searches and as of July 2013 the company claims a massive 67% market share on searches from internet users in the United States. The second largest search provider is Microsoft, with 17.9% of the market. In July, Google processed nearly 13 billion internet searches, while Microsoft is a distant second with three point five billion searches.

All this boils down to is that there’s a good chance you are using Google when you search for something on the internet. But how does Google - and the other big search providers - handle your privacy?

There’s no denying that Google is a great search engine. Every time I enter a search query, it seems like it just knows what I’m looking for, and sometimes it even knows what I was actually looking for before I figure it out myself. And there’s a good reason for this: Google knows a lot about you, and the more you search, the more they know.

When you use Google to search, the company save a lot of information: Device information (such as what kind of browser and mobile phone you are using), log information (such as your search term) and location information (if you allow it). If you are logged in as a Google user, even more information is saved, and every piece of information can be linked to you. One example is that the sites you visited based on the search results are saved.

I’ve been an active Google user for many years, and I’ve asked Google tens of thousands questions. Back in April 2010, I also tried Google Goggles, an application that let’s you use the camera on your mobile phone to do visual searches. Every photo I took was automatically saved to my Google account. One of them is a picture of a ISBN bar code. It was a pretty innocent book about computer programming, but what if it had been a book that was banned by my government? What if I was Chinese and the bar code belonged to a book about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, an event the Chinese government is trying very hard to make people forget?

Not convinced yet? Another great example of why saving all this information about you is a problem can be found at

And all this is just what Google officially tells you that they save. Add the capabilities of PRISM and XKeyScore and it’s possible to create a pretty accurate dossier about you just based on your searches. But this is not a privacy issue that is unique to Google, the reason why I’ve used Google as an example is that it’s historically been my search engine of choice. Most other search engines will save similar information about you and your searches. But there are some search engines that do care about your privacy.

On their PRISM Break site, the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests a few alternatives to Google and other proprietary search engines. One of them is DuckDuckGo, which I’ve been using for a couple of months now. The search engine makes a very big point about how they handle privacy: Every search is encrypted, search leakage (that your search terms are forwarded to the site you visit as a result of the search) is prevented and very little information is stored. Searches are supposed to be secure and anonymous.

That sounds great and all, but there’s really no evidence that what they claim is actually true. Also, the company is located in the United States, making it subject to the same NSA surveillance as US-based search engines. But compared to Google, it’s at least a hell of a lot better in terms of privacy, at least on paper.

In terms of search result quality, however, DuckDuckGo is years behind Google. There are some good reasons for this; one is that the technology is different, another is that DuckDuckGo doesn’t have the massive amount of information about you available to tailor the search results. Compared to Google, the quality of the DuckDuckGo search results are so bad it’s a pain in the ass at times, to be honest.

But DuckDuckGo will get better. The indexing will get more accurate and the search algorithms will eventually return more relevant search results. It’s not like Google was a such great search engine no launch day either. And if you get desperate, you can just add !g to you DuckDuckGo search query and it will forward the search to Google. But if you fall back to that, at least make sure you’re logged out of your Google account.

So, even if DuckDuckGo isn’t a great replacement for Google yet, it seems to be the best option at the moment. And I, for one, am welcoming our new quacking overlords.

This was the third entry in the PRISM break series. All entries are available in the archives.



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It looks like you're using Google's Chrome browser, which records everything you do on the internet. Personally identifiable and sensitive information about you is then sold to the highest bidder, making you a part of surveillance capitalism.

The Contra Chrome comic explains why this is bad, and why you should use another browser.