Robert E.G. Beens is the Co-Founder and CEO of Startpage, and a recognized privacy expert and advocate. At Startpage, Beens oversees operations, product development, technology, and finance. He is also a commercial airline pilot with Netherlands-based airline KLM. He earned his Master’s degree in Corporate, Social & Economic Dutch Law from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Do you remember everything you’ve ever searched online? Have you thought about how powerful that information can be, when tied together and in the hands of someone else?
In 2005, Robert E.G. Beens conducted a legal audit of his search engine Ixquick and was horrified to learn how much personal data of users was being stored. Realizing the alarming privacy implications of collecting and storing so much personal information, Beens and his co-founder David Bodnick decided to drastically alter how the search engine processed user data. As a result, they founded Startpage in 2006 – the most private search engine to date. In this interview, Robert E.G. Beens, CEO and Co-founder of Startpage, shares how they created the world’s first and most private search engine.
Interviewer: Hello Robert. The story of how Startpage was founded is also a recollection of your personal privacy tipping point. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Robert: We were conducting a legal audit of our search engine Ixquick in 2005. I wanted to know exactly what information we were storing, as I was worried and fearful of what might happen if any personal data was ever leaked or hacked. What would the legal repercussions be? So I asked my Co-founder David to walk me through exactly what data we were storing and explain what we were doing with that information. It turned out to be a lot of data we had hardly ever used.
Similar to most digital products, we were storing the exact time people were coming onto our site, the IP address, and the complete user agent -meaning that we also knew what browser, plugins, and platform someone was using. That was already quite identifying. And then, of course, we had the searches they typed in. But not only that, we were able to see what links people clicked on, how long they stayed away, and when they clicked back to our site.
We were able to see every single search that was being typed in and we were able to tie all of the other data we collected to those search queries. I think most people wouldn’t mind a search engine having access to one or two of their searches because those alone aren’t telling. But having the whole set of searches someone has ever done and being able to connect those with other, personal information and put all of that in one basket, so to speak – that’s an entirely different story. Realizing the huge privacy consequences, I was horrified. I looked through some of these files and the searches that people had typed in – highly personal searches that others would have no business seeing – and that was my epiphany and the moment of realization: my gosh, this is terrible and extremely unethical!
What happened after that?
Robert: I realized that this was not in line with what we should be doing and that we needed to get rid of all the data we had stored so far. David and I had some discussions about it, as he is the CTO and comes from a very technical background, seeing the technical value in storing stuff. But we agreed to delete all the data we had ever stored. Then, it took us a couple of months to revise the product to follow privacy by design and get the whole team on board. We had to re-think the entire system to set everything up in such a way that it wouldn’t register any data that was not necessary to perform the service we were offering and only for the shortest time possible. To really become a truly private search engine takes a lot of effort, and often the devil is in the details.
So, privacy became your new business model?
Robert: At the time, online privacy wasn’t really a topic that people seemed to care much about, because they hadn’t yet been exposed to the dangers a loss of privacy on the internet could entail. Initially, there was that feeling of ‘the internet is our friend’ and we all embraced it. We thought it was bringing only good to the world; freedom of information, strengthening our democracies, and bringing new possibilities for global communication. Nobody had a clue what these ‘free’ products we were all using had quietly been doing behind the scenes all along.
Anyway, we felt really good about having incorporated privacy as a unique feature into our service and we also wanted to raise awareness of the privacy risks to the average internet user. That’s why we launched the world’s most private search engine in 2006 and started creating publicity for it.
Time flies – that’s almost 15 years ago now. How did people respond to the concept of private search at the time? How did the user base grow?
Robert: After our launch, we received some positive responses from interested journalists, mostly from Germany, because the German people have always been more interested in privacy than any other country that I know in the world. But that was it. Until two months later when the internet company AOL released a large amount of their user search requests to the public for research purposes. A database containing twenty million search keywords from over 650.000 users was published online. They hadn’t thought about the privacy aspects very well and had replaced IP addresses with unique numbers. As this revealed the total search history per person, journalists were quick to identify the first real people behind the searches. Of course, this created quite a public outrage and a lot of bad publicity for AOL at the time.
Seeing this publicly available database and being able to search through it was a game-changer for search engine privacy awareness. Because you could type in a search keyword and you could see a number for every person who had typed in that specific query. When you clicked on that number you could see all of the searches that person had performed. Sometimes it was just funny queries that people had typed in but sometimes they were more serious. There were actually a couple of people who had typed in things like “how to kill my wife” for instance. Reviewing someone’s full search history tells you the personal story of their lives, their thoughts, beliefs, fears, and hopes.
And at that moment, when I looked at that and tried some searches and clicked on the identifying numbers and I could see the whole search histories of people, only then did it really get to me how important it was what we were doing with our private search. And how extremely powerful the information you give away to your search engine is.
Do you think people are aware of the differences between those advertising models?
Robert: I think the “ads that follow you around” are one of the things that have created a lot of awareness when it comes to being tracked online. And that’s because it’s often the first thing people will notice. You see, the average internet user is not very technical. They don’t know much about Cookies, what an IP address consists of, or how a user agent works. But when you’re browsing online and you’re suddenly presented with an ad that refers to something you talked about on an entirely different platform hours earlier, that feels like a huge intrusion on your privacy and personal life. And like with a lot of things, you have to see it happening in practice.
We just covered a lot of ground and privacy tipping points from the past decade. Have you always been a private person, or was your attitude towards privacy protection shaped by what you learned over the years?
I have always liked my own privacy. It probably has a lot to do with your upbringing and the family you grow up in too. I grew up in the woods and have never been a big city person. My parents raised us to value individual freedom in combination with having strong personal responsibilities. Essentially, I believe that every human being has the right to privacy and the right to be whoever they want to be and think whatever they want to think – until that point where you impact someone else’s freedom, of course. Freedom to search for information without being tracked or profiled is an important element of privacy, one that Startpage offers.
So, individual freedom is something I have always felt very strongly about. People sometimes say “you were a visionary”, but I don’t buy that. It was just a coincidence that I ended up running a search engine, performed a legal audit, and then just happened to realize the far-reaching privacy consequences of gathering personal search data so early on in the game.
Coincidence is influencing a lot of things in life…
Looking into the future, which new features would you like Startpage to implement? What do you think are the most important ones so far?
Robert: First of all, I think we are on the right path. One of our most important features is the Anonymous View, which goes far beyond the Incognito or Private modes that browsers offer. Those modes only work locally on your device, search engines can still see your browsing history and any website you visit can still see your IP address and other details. With Startpage’s Anonymous View, you can click on a search result and you are viewing the website that opens completely anonymously (through Startpage). No one will ever know you were on that site.
We are also getting ready to release a new extension that blocks trackers, turns on an auto Do Not Track mode, and provides privacy scores for each site. In addition to private search.
We have the best private search engine in the world, we just have to tout our own horn a little more to get more people to enjoy it.