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Privacy Risks of Search Engine Advertising Systems: Conclusion, Acknowledgments, and Referencesby@browserology
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Privacy Risks of Search Engine Advertising Systems: Conclusion, Acknowledgments, and References

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A new study finds that privacy-focused search engines fail to protect users’ privacy when clicking ads.
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This paper is available on arxiv under CC0 1.0 DEED license.

Authors:

(1) Salim Chouaki, LIX, CNRS, Inria, Ecole Polytechnique, Institut Polytechnique de Paris;

(2) Oana Goga, LIX, CNRS, Inria, Ecole Polytechnique, Institut Polytechnique de Paris;

(3) Hamed Haddadi, Imperial College London, Brave Software;

(4) Peter Snyder, Brave Software.

7 CONCLUSION

In this paper, we presented the first systematic study of the privacy properties of the advertising systems of five popular search engines: Two traditional ones, Google and Bing, and three private ones, DuckDuckGo, StartPage, and Qwant. We investigated whether, and to which extent, search engines through their advertising systems, engage in privacyharming behaviors that allow cross site tracking.


Despite the privacy intentions and promises of private search engines, our findings reveal the failure of privacyfocused search engines to fully protect users’ privacy during ad interactions. Users on all measured search engines, including the privacy-focused ones, are subject to navigation-based tracking by third parties. We find that all search engines engage in bounce tracking when clicking on ads, where users are sent through several redirectors before reaching the ads’

destination websites. While private search engines themselves do not engage in user tracking, their reliance on traditional advertising systems (Microsoft or Google) renders users susceptible to tracking by those systems. Although we cannot directly attribute this tracking to the search engines themselves, it is evident that they are enabling it through their reliance on Microsoft and Google’s advertising systems.


Inspecting the privacy policies of the search engines in light of our findings reveals interesting disparities. While our results demonstrate that Microsoft is capable of tracking DuckDuckGo users when they click on ads, DuckDuckGo asserts that Microsoft does not associate ad-click data with user profiles. On the other hand, Qwant, which also relies on Microsoft advertising for a significant fraction of its ads, do not document the utilization of ad-click data by Microsoft and whether it is used to enhance user profiles. Similarly, StartPage explicitly states that clicking on ads subjects users to the data collection policies of other websites.


Our study highlights the need for increased attention to privacy protection within the advertising systems of search engines. One potential solution to protect users’ privacy for private search engines would be to reduce their reliance on third-party advertising systems. Developing their own advertising platform could provide greater control over privacy practices, although the feasibility and complexity of such an approach remain uncertain. Alternatively, private search

engines could collaborate with advertising systems such as Microsoft and Google, forging partnerships that proactively tackle privacy concerns. For instance, private search engines

could negotiate agreements with the ad provider that prevent redirecting users who click on ads placed within private search engines to additional third parties. This approach would minimize the extent of third-party tracking, limiting it to the ad provider only. Moreover, search engines like StartPage and Qwant could follow the lead of DuckDuckGo by seeking agreements with advertising systems to prevent the use of ad-click identifiers for user profile enrichment. These proactive steps would enhance user privacy while maintaining advertising partnerships with larger platforms.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This research was supported in part by the French National Research Agency (ANR) through the ANR-17-CE23-0014, ANR-21-CE23-0031-02, and MIAI@Grenoble Alpes ANR19-P3IA-0003 grants and by the EU through the 101041223, 101021377, and 952215 grants.

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