Search engines and the privacy problem

16 Aug 2020

Whenever you need to look for information about anything, you open your browser, start typing and press enter, as easy as that you get the information that you needed. Most likely you’ll find you information in the first 3 links that your search engine gives you. Even then some search engines show you Wikipedia information right there with your search, you don’t even need to click a link.

The most popular web browsers come with Googol as the default web search engine (Chrome, Firefox and Safari) and some people probably don’t even know other search engines exist, in fact, googol has become a verb because of how frequently is used and how much it dominates the search engine market.

Browser marketshare

This domination poses a big a threat to people. Search engines can recieve and process a lot of information from your searches, making it even easier when you are logged into an account. They know your interests to target you ads, products and if they wanted they could easily know your sleep schedule, which devices you have at home, etc.

Not only search engines can profile you posing a threat to your privacy, they can manipulate opinion and information you recieve. Let’s say for example I wanted to search for websites that claim “vaccines do cause autism”, I went as far as going to the 2nd page of Googol and could not find a website that claimed it caused autism. On topics like this where you need studies and tests to make claims it’s easier to know the “truth”. But what about more controversial topics? Googol can easily show you want they want you to see.

There are other competitors and in fact, lately there have been growing privacy oriented search engines. One of the most popular is DuckDuckGo, it respects your privacy by not collecting any personal information. It gets the job done but some searches need context and if you don’t provide it you probably won’t get the results you need.

I’ll try with DuckDuckGo to search for websites that claim a relation between vaccines and autism.

DuckDuckGo search result

With DuckDuckGo you can actually see the third result is actually a website claiming that vaccines could cause autism.

But enough about Googol, There are also projects such as searx a privacy-respecting metasearch engine which you can host yourself and there are public instances that can be used.

These are all great ideas as an answer to the amount of information some search engines collect. The biggest problem of all is that it’s still a centralized solution that you have no control of. As much as DuckDuckGo says they will respect your privacy, they can collect information and track your searches with personal information and you have to trust them what they say.

Is there an easy solution to this privacy problem? Probably not. Whether you are looking for a website or specific information you are going to use a computer somewhere that process your request and will store information.

The best one can do is to use privacy oriented search engines, avoid using US based search engines as traffic is intercepted by the 3 letter agency, use a browser like Firefox that gives you options to stop tracking on the web and search directly in the websites the information you need, if looking for Wikipedia information, then go to https://wikipedia.org and use their search engine.

Do not blindly trust search engines.