In the wake of the NSA’s spying revelations, a golden opportunity has arisen for lesser known web services that offer guarantees against government snooping. Admittedly, a large number of web users will probably never leave the likes of Google and Microsoft simply because they don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a good number of people are seeking out alternatives.
Take the case of DuckDuckGo for example, the private search engine that has just reported record breaking levels of traffic since the NSAgate scandal erupted. This week, it recorded 2.25 million direct searches – a massive 26% increase over the week before and the first time its ever broken the two million barrier. These stats alone tell us that there’s a large number of web users out there who are keen and eager to find ways of avoiding government snooping – something that also happens to be DuckDuckGo’s major selling point.
“We offer that in web search, and there are others that offer it in other verticals. As people find out about these alternatives, they make that choice,” explained DuckDuckGo founder & CEO Gabriel Weinberg via email.
DuckDuckGo’s Bullet-Proof Privacy
So what is it that makes DuckDuckGo so special? It’s quite simple really – unlike with Google, Bing or Yahoo, it doesn’t track its users when they search through its site. Instead, all it does is give them the search results they want.
These are pretty iron-clad promises, and it’s highly unlikely that the company would ever go and break them. To do so would be pretty stupid, something that Weinberg makes very clear when I asked him how sure we can be sure that DuckDuckGo will always keep its word:
In other words, if DuckDuckGo breaks its promises, it’s history, simple as that. The moment it loses trust, bang goes it’s biggest single advantage over Google and Bing, and that would immediately drive most of its users away. That’s not to say that DuckDuckGo doesn’t collect any data at all – it does, but only the bare minimum that it needs to be able to tweak and improve the relevancy of its results.
“We collect anonymized (in the true sense since we don’t store IP addresses, etc.) search queries to improve and tweak our relevancy, to showcase better instant answers, when to trigger a particular instant answer, correct misspellings, autocomplete, etc.,” explains Weinberg.
“For example, if you look at our data you would see an increase of PRISM searches, but we have no idea who searched them or any personally identifiable information with them.”
So the only data that DuckDuckGo collects is anonymized search queries that can’t be tracked to the people who made made them, something that makes it’s data all but useless to the spooks at the NSA.
“By not storing any useful information, DuckDuckGo simply isn’t useful to these surveillance programs,” says Weinberg. “We literally do not store personally identifiable user data, so if the NSA were to get a hold of all our data, it would not be useful to them since it is all truly anonymous.”
Sounds Good, But Does It Actually Work?
Being private is all well and good, but a search engine can’t be judged on the level of privacy it offers alone. Just as important is the quality of results, since if it doesn’t come up with the goods then people just aren’t going to use it, no matter how trustworthy it might be.
I’m not going to go too deep into that today, but suffice to say that in the three months or so I’ve been using it as my default search engine, I’ve rarely been disappointed with the answers it provides. And I certainly don’t miss those annoying ads and “local search” directory results that Google always throws in my face.
For those who are interested, Search Engine Land gives a great in-depth comparison of DuckDuckGo’s results vs. Google’s, and concludes that the former focuses on “what is best for the searcher”, rather than what might be best for the search engine. That, if nothing else, should at least tempt you to give it a try.
So there you have it. In a nutshell, if you don’t want the NSA or anyone else snooping around at your search history, or if you’re bored of being bombarded with ads every five minutes, just “Ask the Duck” what he thinks instead.