What you look for on the Internet reveals a lot about you, which is why a growing number of people are turning to services that do not track their searches and offer greater privacy protections than Google.
“The consciousness is only slowly building on the dangers,” says Robert Beens, CEO of Dutch companies Startpage and Ixquick, which provide anonymous searches. “It is very easy to see how this treasure trove of data can be misused in the future.”
“For instance, you make searches for your medical condition…That is extremely interesting information for medical companies, for insurances companies.”
“It could increase your premium if you search for a couple of specific keywords. It is not being done today, to my knowledge, but it is very easy to see it leading to that in the future.”
To be sure, Google crushes the competition in search. For the U.S. market in December, Google has 67.3 percent of the market with 12.3 billion searches a month, followed by Microsoft sites (18.2 percent), Yahoo (10.8 percent) and Ask (2.5 percent), according to comScore.
The reason for Google’s dominance is clear: many users find the site more fulfilling than alternatives.
How do these privacy friendly sites work? Startpage uses Google results which it buys from the company (in a slightly less user friendly interface); its sister company Ixquick, as well as rival site DuckDuckGo, present results compiled from a series of different search engines. For example, DuckDuckGo says its sources are its own web crawler, Yahoo!, Yandex, WolframAlpha, Bing and crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia.
Another privacy option comes from Boston-based Abine, which offers a free Firefox browser plugin GoogleSharing that scrambles the records of Google searches among different users. With the browser, you use the same Google.com page, but it may not always work as smoothly as going directly to Google. About 50,000 people use the plugin daily.
“It looks like you are coming out of a big corporate network,” says Abine CEO Rob Shavell says about Gogole’s ability to track users of the plugin. “There are still some bugs are we rebuild the platform…It’s a little bit of a cat and mouse game.”
Are these search engine privacy companies making a big fuss over nothing? I contacted Google for their response. “Some privacy advocates say in the future Google could sell searches to insurance companies and others,” I wrote. “Has that ever happened and could that happen in the future? What can the company say to calm any possible user concerns on this issue?”
The official corporate response avoided any direct response to that or other questions I posed. The spokesman also asked that his name not be printed, despite a specific request that a named official speak for Google.
“Google goes above and beyond to make sure your information is safe, secure and always available to you,” the spokesman said. “Our commitment to the security of your data is absolute — we have more than 400 full-time security experts providing design reviews, consulting, training and education across the company, as well as building privacy and security technologies into our products.”
I wrote again seeking more precise answers and perhaps the opportunity to talk with one of those 400 security experts. They did not write back.
Google makes billions of dollars through its beloved search engine by running ads alongside the results. The negative exploitation of an individual’s search data forecast by Robert Beens of Startpage has yet to happen, as far as anyone knows. But it does seem that Google could do more to allay fears that someday search histories could come back to haunt.
For millions of users, that uncertainty means they turn to the privacy friendly alternatives, especially when looking up topics such as medical ailments or sensitive personal issues.