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Hackernoon logoAre Private Search Engines Truly Private? by@sam-bocetta

Are Private Search Engines Truly Private?

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@sam-bocettaSam

Sam Bocetta is a former cyber defense systems analyst/

As of January 2020, 59% of the global population is connected to the internet. 

That means over four and a half billion people are now connected to an information highway that continuously gathers their personal data, preferences, locations and favorite methods of connecting to the internet. 

We’ve already written about how you can’t always trust the VPN services you may be using to protect your privacy, as well as how not all password managers are not enough for security as well. As you can imagine, privacy has become more of an important issue than it ever has before.

However, internet users are becoming more savvy. In a 2019 report, it was found that 53% of online users were more concerned about their online privacy than the previous year and private search engine companies are showing impressive year-on year growth. But are these private search engines truly private?

What is a Private Search Engine?

All search engines navigate the web by downloading web pages and following links to new web pages related to a user’s search input. The difference between a regular search engine and a private search engine lies mostly in their different business models. 

Most of the large search engines rely on advertisements within their search results to drive revenue whereas private search engines focus on affiliate marketing programs, for example. When a user buys a product from a company after landing there from a specific private search engine, the company collects a commission fee. 

As more devices are being connected to the internet, our exposure increases, and many traditional cybersecurity methods are not always effective

The communication services of many businesses, for instance, are becoming increasingly connected to the internet. This is a contributing factor in the shift towards private search engines as these search engines also skips all forms of tracking and do not store or process any information related to you, your searches, your connected devices or email accounts. 

Private Browsing vs. Private Search Engine

Private browsing, also known as InPrivate Browsing or Incognito mode does offer some anonymity when searching the internet, but does not offer much privacy protection. When turned on, the browser will create a temporary session that is isolated from the main session. 

As such other users on the same device won’t be able to see your history or records of the temporary session and the device will erase any cookies that might have been downloaded. But the website you visited will still have your information available, as will your employer and your internet service provider (ISP). 

In a recent online privacy survey conducted in the UK, more than 95% of the respondents felt that the biggest threat to their online privacy came in the form of hackers. Guess what? They are 100% correct.

Hackers, phishers and data thieves are viewed as the biggest threats to our online security at the moment, followed by AI and smart devices. And your data is what they’re after. There are numerous additional privacy benefits to be gained when using a private search engine such as:

No tracking

Normal search engines cache your search terms, the web pages you visit and the images you view, they also allow anyone on your device to access this information. The best private search engines do not track your movements, as such you can not be bombarded with ads and your search results can not be influenced by any of your previous searches.

Neutral  and objective results

A filter bubble eliminates any conflicting views from your search results if your search history has ever been saved. As such, your search results on a normal search engine will never reflect true search results. 

Bearing in mind these and other data safety concerns, private search engines are unbiased and deliver the same results to every user because they do not base their results on complex user profile data.

Private really means private

Private search engines keep all your search terms, personal data and the pages you visit hidden and encrypted. That means all your provided data can be anonymous. This not only ensures anonymity after your internet sessions, but also ensures that your data can not be accessed should your searches be intercepted. Encrypted searches also make it difficult for your ISP or any other companies/organizations to view your search terms.

Improving the culture around privacy

Over the last few years a stigma developed around privacy, seeing it as an ideal mostly chased after by cybercriminals or terrorists. But more and more people are realizing that there is value in staying private online as it limits the powers of hackers, oppressive governments and other malicious acts. 

Our privacy is becoming more important

We often hear about intrusions into individual’s safety by ISPs or government agencies and data breaches have become commonplace. During 2019, over 419 million Facebook accounts were compromised due to a server without a password and in 2018 Twitter had to ask all their users to change their passwords after a glitch caused some to be stored as readable text. 

Luckily the rising threats have led to innovative SaaS business models that have introduced a variety of cloud-based solutions to address the shortage of safe server and hosting services on a global scale. But each new data breach causes people to react by moving away from the unsafe or unsecured websites and platforms towards safer ones. 

From freedom of thought and speech to freedom of social and political activities, our online privacy helps to protect our ability to associate with other people online and enables us to engage in online activities without disruptions and impairments to our freedom. As awareness around our rights and the threats posed by online privacy grows, more people will move towards services like VPNs and private search engines.

Search engine privacy continues to be a controversial subject

Private Search Engine Safety Concerns

When you switch over to a private search engine, you are in effect, migrating your trust. And your trust will not be misplaced. 

Even if the company would be sold in the future, these companies explicitly state in their privacy policies and terms of use that they do not track any personal information or user data, as such they would face massive fines from the Federal Trade Commission. Unfortunately, we will never be able to be 100% sure that our search engine of choice is private or not.

 But it is a good idea to research the various options available and to go with a search engine that guarantees a business model based on privacy. You can also do research on the websites or web pages that you visit frequently to find out if you are being tracked. If you come across any vulnerabilities, change your browser settings to block all forms of tracking and use the tools available to you to protect yourself.


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