Searching Privately in a Post-Scroogle World

Until recently, those who wanted to search the Internet but didn’t want to have Google tracking their activities could use Scroogle. Now that owner Daniel Brandt has taken the site offline permanently, searchers deeply concerned about privacy must look elsewhere.

Barry Schwartz covered the full story of Scroogle’s closing for Search Engine Land. Here’s the short version: about a week ago, Google began blocking the site.  The privacy search engine, online since 2003, worked by “scraping” Google’s results without passing along any identifiable information or keeping any itself – thus giving users a measure of privacy they lacked when searching directly at Google itself. Getting blocked in this way might not have killed Scroogle so quickly, but the site also fell victim to a stream of distributed denial of service attacks that started back in December.

With Scroogle gone forever, where can a privacy-conscious searcher go to find what she’s looking for without giving away who she is? Fortunately, there are other options. Matt McGee provides a short list. I wish I could say that you can expect it to grow longer, but I’m not convinced; it seems as if search privacy has become a minor issue for most of us.

The best-known privacy-focused search engine is DuckDuckGo. Founded three years ago by Gabriel weinberg and self-funded until October of last year, DuckDuckGo bluntly states on its privacy page that it does not collect or share personal information. Period. To help shed light on this problem, the search engine launched DontTrackUs, which shows how Google tracks searchers – and what happens as a result of Google tracking. Thought of in some circles as “the little search engine that could,” DDG recently enjoyed its first million-search day.

Then there’s Ixquick. Launched back in 1998 and acquired in 2000 by a privately held Dutch company, Ixquick maintains a very explicit privacy policy that includes no recording of users’ IP addresses, no identifying cookies, no collection of personal data, no sharing personal data with third parties, a free proxy service that allows anonymous browsing of websites, and more. It does send a cookie to users’ computers – but it’s a preference cookie that expires after 90 days. This company also operates Startpage. McGee explains that “Startpage takes a search query, removes all identifiable information about the searcher, and submits the search to Google anonymously.” That’s pretty close to what Scroogle did when it was up and running.

Yippy bills itself as a “family friendly” portal site. Yippy states on its privacy page that it never requires personally identifiable information, and never seeks it out “unless you request a Yippy Service where that information is required.” It’s intended to be an anonymous service. It does collect “limited not-personally identifying information that your browser makes available.” It does explicitly state that it won’t sell users’ personal information to advertisers for profit. Users outside the U.S. “are subject to forms of minimal tracking” as required from their countries of origin.

There’s also hope for private searching from a couple of sources you might not have considered. The first is Ask.com. They offer the Ask Eraser. It’s a tool which can be enabled on the search site. Turning on this tool will delete your search activity from Ask.com, but not from third-party servers. In certain circumstances, such as when law or government officials request the company to retain search activity data, the tool will not delete it. Ask implies, however, that this occurs very rarely.

The second unlikely source for private searching is Google itself. The search giant offers Google Encrypted Search. Keep in mind, however, that it only offers secure search, not truly private search. As McGee notes, “Even when you’re using Google’s encrypted search, Google will know who you are (if you’re logged in to a Google account) and will still save your search activity if you’ve enabled the search history feature.”

Now that you know your options, you can make an informed decision as to where to perform search queries online, if your privacy matters to you. Good luck!

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