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Saturday, 11 May 2019 05:32

Private Search Engines – The Ultimate Guide

Author:  [This article is originally published in restoreprivacy.com written by Sven Taylor] 

 [This article is originally published in restoreprivacy.com written by   - Uploaded by AIRS Member: Jasper Solander]

This new and improved guide aims to be the most in-depth resource available (6,000+ words) on private search engines. Below we’ll take a close look at the best private search engines for 2019, as well as examining other aspects of private search and keeping your data safe from third parties. (May 2019 update)

Search engines may help you find what you’re looking for, but it often comes at a price: your privacy.

Most of the big search engines today, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, are essentially data collection tools. Collecting your private data helps these companies to make money on targeted ads, which is a booming industry. Unless you are using a private search engine, your data is ending up in the hands of third parties and you are the product.

Here is the data being collected by some of the larger (not private) search engines:

  1. Source IP address
  2. User agent
  3. Location
  4. Unique identifier (stored in browser cookies)
  5. Search queries

Using a search engine can disclose highly personal information about you, such as medical issues, employment status, financial information, political beliefs, and other private details. This data, of course, will be collected, stored, and linked to your data profile. The only way to effectively “opt out” of this data collection, is to keep your data safe and out of the hands of the data collectors.

In this new and improved guide, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of private search engines, while also covering some FAQs and best practices for keeping your data safe and private. Table of contents:

  1. Best private search engines for 2019 (we’ll examine 13 different search engines)
  2. How do private search engines make money?
  3. DuckDuckGo vs Startpage
  4. Are US-based search engines safe?
  5. How to keep your searches private
  6. Considerations when choosing a private search engine

All recommendations in this guide are my own opinions based on extensive testing and research.

Best private search engines

Finding the best private search engine for your unique needs is a subjective process and there’s no one-size-fits-all, with many factors to consider. Ideally, a search engine would return great results while also respecting your privacy. Unfortunately, there is often a tradeoff here, so it really comes down to the user and what you determine works best for your situation.

That being said, Startpage earned the title of “best private search engine” for 2019, and we’ll explain why below.

Aside from Startpage, however, any of the private search engines in this guide may be the best fit for your needs. You can test them all to see which one is the best fit.

Metasearch vs search: Most of the private search engines in this guide are technically metasearch engines, because they pull search results from other search engines, such as Google, Bing, and Yandex. The one exception to this is Mojeek, which is a true crawler-based search engine with its own index (discussed below). There are also a few search engines that fall in the middle by deploying their own crawler, but also pulling results from other search engines.

Note: This list is not necessarily in rank order. Choose the best search engine for you based on your own threat model and unique needs.

Here are the best private search engines:

1. Startpage – Best private search engine for 2019

startpage private search engine 768x434

Startpage is arguably the best private search engine available right now. It combines great search results, customizable settings, and excellent privacy features. Startpage uses results from Google, but with added privacy protections, proxy viewing options, and no data collection.

Originally, Startpage was called IXQuick and was founded by David Bodnick in 1998. You can get more history about the company and their policies on their About Us page.

Startpage does quite well in the area of user privacy. It does not log any user data or share information with third parties. Startpage is based in the Netherlands, which is a favorable jurisdiction for privacy compared to the United States (Five Eyes). Additionally, Startpage has undergone (and passed) independent third-party audits of their privacy and data-handling practices.

Proxy “Anonymous View” feature – Another great feature with Startpage is that it includes a proxy, through which you can view images, videos, and websites. You will see an “Anonymous View” link next to every search result. Clicking this will hide your IP address and user agent, but I also found it to be somewhat buggy in testing.

Customizable features – In testing out the latest version of Startpage, I was impressed with all of the customizable features. Aside from language modifications, there are also different layout themes (Dark, Night, Air, etc.) and proxy viewing options for images and websites. You can also select the server region you want to use: US servers or EU servers.

Jurisdiction: Netherlands

https://www.startpage.com


2. Searx – Open source metasearch engine

searx-768x295.png

Searx is an open source metasearch engine that gathers results from other search engines while also respecting user privacy. One unique feature of Searx is that you can run your own instance. The drawback with your own instance, however, is that your search results won’t be mixed with other users. Searx is open source and available on GitHub.

Another great aspect of Searx is that it is very customizable. You can modify exactly what search engines Searx pulls results from in the user preferences area. You can also narrow down results with different categories – it’s all under your control.

One drawback with Searx is that it’s been getting blocked by Google because it scrapes Google results. When testing out Searx, I would get this error indicating that Google blocked the request:

private-search-engine-error-768x180.png

SearX can still pull results from other search engines, however, but if you need Google results, Startpage might be a better option.

Public instances – Because Searx is open source and freely available for anyone to use, there are a number of different public instances you can utilize. However, just like with Tor nodes, anyone could set up a “rogue” instance and potentially log user activity, as Searx explains here:

What are the consequences of using public instances?

If someone uses a public instance, he/she has to trust the administrator of that instance. This means that the user of the public instance does not know whether his/her requests are logged, aggregated and sent or sold to a third party.

This might mean that governments and other rogue third parties are operating instances, but that is pure speculation. Nonetheless, you might want to just stick with the main site, searx.me.

Jurisdiction: Not applicable (open source, not based in any one location)

https://www.searx.me


3. MetaGer – Open source metasearch engine, great features

metager-private-search--768x257.png

MetaGer is an open source metasearch engine based in Germany, which gets search results from Bing, Yandex, Yahoo and others, as well as having its own web crawler. It is an interesting project, which started in 1996, and is now operated by a non-profit foundation in Germany called SUMA-EV(Association for Free Access to Knowledge). I tested out MetaGer for this guide and found the results to be good, with some nice features as well:

  1. Every search result shows the source it came from
  2. Search filter options (date, safe search, and language)
  3. Proxy viewing options “open anonymously”

metager private search 1 1 768x253

MetaGer also does very well in terms of privacy, as they explain here. Similar to Startpage, MetaGer converts search requests into anonymous queries through a proxy server, which also provides the anonymous viewing option with all results. User IP addresses are truncated for privacy, although user agent info is passed along to their search partners. MetaGer does not utilize cookies or any other tracking methods.

For operation stability and security, MetaGer does keep some logs on their own servers (in Germany), but this data is kept no longer than 96 hours and automatically erased. MetaGer finances operations from user donations, as well as ads that are served through partner networks, such as Bing, which appear at the top of results. If you purchase a membership, however, you can get completely ad-free search results. (Without memberships and personal donations, MetaGer states they would not be able to continue operations.)

MetaGer runs all of its infrastructure on servers in Germany, which is a good privacy jurisdiction with strict data protection laws. Like Searx, MetaGer is completely open source, with the source code available here. For those on the Tor network, MetaGer also hosts a .onion site. You can read more about using MetaGer, as well as their apps, plugins, and features, on their website. We’ll close here with an interesting quote I found on their website (translated from German):

Did you know that according to the Patriot Act, all internet servers and search engines physically located in the jurisdiction of the United States are obligated to disclose any information to the intelligence services? Your personal data is at risk even if the servers and search engines don’t store any information: it is sufficient if the intelligence agencies read and store everything at the internet point of connection. All MetaGer servers are located in Germany.

Jurisdiction: Germany

https://metager.org/ (English)

https://metager.de/ (German)


4. Swisscows – Switzerland-based private search engine, zero tracking

swisscows private search engine 768x312

Swisscows is a Switzerland-based private search engine that does very well with privacy and security. They promise no tracking or data collection, and even have a “Swiss Fort Knox” data center for their server infrastructure. From their website:

  1. have our own servers and do not work with cloud or third party!
  2. have our Datacenter in the Swiss Alps – THIS is the safest bunker in Europe!
  3. have positioned everything geographically outside of EU and US.

In terms of privacy, Swisscows does very well, arguably better than many other private search engines. From their privacy policy:

We do not collect any of our visitors’ personal information. None whatsoever. When using Swisscows neither your IP address is recorded nor is the browser you are using (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, etc.) collected. No analyses are made, which operating system our users use (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.); your search are not recorded either. We record absolutely no data from our visitors. The only information we store is the number of search requests entered daily at Swisscows, to measure the total overall traffic on our website and to evaluate a breakdown of this traffic by language and mere overall statistics.

Swisscows completely does away with statistics and analyses on its visitors in order to protect your privacy. Given that we do not collect any information on our visitors, we are also not able to identify your place of residence. Swisscows does not conduct any geo targeting.

Swisscows does not use Cookies which can be used to identify of a user.

In testing out Swisscows for this guide, I found it to provide good results, which are primarily sourced from Bing.

Family-Friendly content – One unique aspect of Swisscows is that they are passionate about family-friendly content. As they explain on their about page:

  1. We promote moral values.
  2. We hate violence and pornography.
  3. We promote digital media education.

While some people may not like the fact that Swisscows filters pornographic and violent results from their search results, others may see this as a great feature, especially those with small children.

Because Swisscows does not pass on user data from search requests, they are unable to effectively monetize their service through ad partners, which means they largely rely on donations and sponsorships to maintain operations (sponsors can get a banner ad at the top of results):

For the reason that Swisscows does NOT monitor users, thus doesn’t spy out data and NO data is sold to advertisers, only few companies are interested in advertising on Swisscows. This revenue unfortunately doesn’t cover the expenses on data center, development, employees, etc.

Jurisdiction: Switzerland

https://swisscows.com


5. Qwant – Private search engine based in France

qwant search engine 768x396

Qwant is another private search engine that is based in France and primarily sources search results from Bing. Being based in Europe, the data privacy protections are much stricter, as compared to the United States, for example. Qwant promises to protect user privacy (no tracking) and keep people from getting stuck in the filter bubble. Here is an excerpt from Qwant’s privacy policy:

When you use Qwant as a search engine, we don’t put any cookie on your browser that may allow us or others to recognize you or to follow you everywhere on the Internet. We don’t use any tracking device (pixel, fingerprinting…). We don’t collect and we don’t store any history or your searches. When you search, your query is instantly anonymized by being dissociated from your IP address, in accordance with what the French data controller advises. Long story short, what you are doing with Qwant is part of your privacy and we don’t want to know.

Qwant also has good search filtering options, to filter results by different categories (web, news, social, images, videos, and shopping) as well as date filters. The Qwant homepage also includes news stories, trending people, events, and other interest stories. Qwant continues to grow, with over 10 million searches per day, and is one of the most popular websites in France (top 50).

Overall, Qwant is a good option for a private search engine, with many features in place to protect user privacy.

Jurisdiction: France

https://www.qwant.com/


6. DuckDuckGo – Private search engine based in the US

duckduckgo private search 768x381

DuckDuckGo is a US-based search engine that was started by Gabriel Weinberg in 2008. It generates search results from over 400 sources including Wikipedia, Bing, Yandex, and Yahoo. DuckDuckGo has a close partnership with Yahoo, which helps it to better filter search results.

In testing out DDG for this private search guide, I found it to work pretty well, with relevant search terms being displayed for most tests. Search results for DuckDuckGo are primarily sourced from Bing, although it does use other sources and also has its own web crawler called DuckDuckBot.

To finance operations, DuckDuckGo generates money through advertisements and affiliates, further explained here. Similar to Google and other search engines, DuckDuckGo will display ads at the top of your searches. DuckDuckGo has partnered with Amazon and eBay as affiliates.

Searches are saved – DuckDuckGo has a verbose privacy policy that mainly discusses other search engines. It’s only when you get toward the bottom that you learn DDG is saving search queries:

We also save searches, but again, not in a personally identifiable way, as we do not store IP addresses or unique User agent strings.

Why is DuckDuckGo saving search queries? The privacy policy states, “We use aggregate, non-personal search data to improve things like misspellings.”

History – In researching DuckDuckGo for this private search guide, I uncovered some interesting history. The founder of DDG, Gabriel Weinberg, was also behind a social network called Names Database, which collected the real names and addresses of its users. He then sold Names Database to Classmates.com for “approximately $10 million in cash” in March 2006.

DuckDuckGo was launched a few years later, in 2008, and rose to popularity in 2013 following the Snowden revelations. It remains one of the most popular private search engines to date and is well-regarded in the privacy community.

Jurisdiction: United States (runs on Amazon servers in the US)

https://duckduckgo.com


7. Mojeek – A true crawler-based search engine with more privacy

mojeek private search engine 768x364

Unlike some of the other private (meta)search engines on this page, Mojeek is true search engine with its own crawler. In a recent reddit discussion, Mojeek claimed to have indexed 2.3 billion pages, with the goal of doubling that by the end of the year.

For those who want complete search independence from the corporate data monoliths of Google and Bing, Mojeek offers an interesting proposition. Unfortunately, when I tested out their search functionality, the results were rather disappointing. Various test searches displayed lots of non-relevant information, but this will likely improve over time.

In terms of privacy, Mojeek does pretty well. It claims to be the “first ever no tracking/privacy orientated search engine” from when it first started. The Mojeek privacy policy details how user data is generally protected, with one exception:

Mojeek doesn’t implement any kind of specific user tracking, whether that be at the time of visit or subsequently via standard logs, which Mojeek does keep. These logs contain the time of visit, page requested, possibly referral data, and browser information. IP addresses are not recorded (except in rare circumstances[1]), instead the IP address is replaced with a simple two letter code indicating the visitors country of origin. By doing this, Mojeek removes any possibility of tracking or identifying any particular user.

[1] Mojeek does make one exception to this rule, if a search query is deemed related to illegal and unethical practices relating to minors, then the full log including visiting IP address will be kept and gladly handed over to any official authorities that ask. If you’re at all concerned about this exception then Mojeek is not the search engine for you.

While we would all agree on the importance of stopping criminals, creating exceptions to log user IP addresses and hand this data over to authorities could be a slippery slope. Nonetheless, Mojeek does well overall with privacy.

Hopefully Mojeek can continue to improve their search results and one day rival the big players.

Jurisdiction: United Kingdom

https://www.mojeek.com/


8. YaCy – Decentralized, open source, peer-to-peer search engine

yacy private search engine 768x482

YaCy is an interesting private search engine that distinguishes itself from others in that it runs on a peer-to-peer network (decentralized). It was created in 2004 by Michael Christen and is entirely open source. Here is a brief description from YaCy’s website:

It is fully decentralized, all users of the search engine network are equal, the network does not store user search requests and it is not possible for anyone to censor the content of the shared index. We want to achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world’s users.

With YaCy, there is no central server, which could be seized or tapped by authorities. Rather, all peers in the network are equal and can be used for crawling or in “proxy mode” to index pages for other users. To use YaCy, you need to download the free software on your operating system, available for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux (but there is a demo portal here).

Jurisdiction: Not applicable (Being a decentralized and open-source platform, YaCy does not appear to fall under any particular jurisdiction, similar to Searx.)

https://yacy.net/


Other search engines worth mentioning…

Any of the private search engines above may be a good choice if you are looking for more privacy.

With that being said, there are many search engines on the market which claim to offer varying degrees of privacy, tracking protection, and encryption.

Below are a few search engines that fall into the middle ground:

  • They are better alternatives than using Google or Yahoo search; but
  • They also don’t meet all the requirements to be featured as a full “private search engine” – for various reasons.

Since people may have questions about these search engines, we’ll take a close look at each option below.

The search engines below may be great choices depending on your threat model, needs, and preferences.


Givero – Search with more privacy, plus charitable donations

givero private search engine 768x414

Another interesting search engine out of Europe (Denmark) is Givero. The basic philosophy behind Givero is to donate a share of gross profits to charities, which the user can specify. (Money is generated through ads, like most search engines.)

In terms of privacy, Givero is somewhat of a mixed bag, with both pros and cons. For pros, Givero is based in Europe (with full GDPR privacy protections) and does not log search history or store profile data. By default, however, Givero does not offer the full protections of the private search engines above. This is clear from their privacy policy, where we read:

To display relevant search results and to prevent fraudulent activities, data is transferred to our search partners who only use it to provide better search results on Givero – read more below. [The partners are Bing and CodeFuel.]

The following data is transferred to our search partners when you submit a search request: IP address, user agent string, search term, country and language settings, filter settings for adult content, active search filter settings (e.g. page number information), an optional Bing ID (read more below) and the ID of the organization that should benefit from your search.

This is one drawback with metasearch engines that get their search results from other providers, in this case Bing. Some private search engines are able to work with search partners without compromising any data. Givero is not there yet. (Previously, the people behind Givero worked to create their own search engine called Findx, based on Gigablast, but could not make the project work for various reasons.)

Brian Rasmusson, co-founder of Givero, told Restore Privacy that Bing currently will not allow Givero to mask user IP addresses, but may consider doing this when monthly searches reach a certain threshold. However, Rasmusson also explained that Givero has successfully incorporated other privacy protections for its users:

What we have done is to make them [Bing] turn on their internal “privacy flag” that Bing operates with. This means that data from our users is not used for remarketing, and solely used for the Givero service (e.g. for fraud prevention). So that is always on, and cannot be changed on a user level unlike the Bing ID, which controls personalized results (the “filter bubble”).

Givero has also open sourced their Instant Answers (like DuckDuckGo) and their list of Search Bangs (unlike DuckDuckGo) on Github here.

Main drawbacks:

  • Not a “private search engine” by default
  • Bing ID is utilized (but can be disabled)
  • User IP address passed on to Bing (use a VPN)

Juridiction: Denmark

https://www.givero.com


Search Encrypt – Encrypted search, but who’s running the show?

search encrypt private search 768x286

Search Encrypt is another interesting search engine that claims to offer better privacy by default than DuckDuckGo. Like DuckDuckGo, Search Encrypt uses Bing for search results. Search Encrypt describes the following features on their website:

  • Expiring browsing history: Encryption keys for your searches expire when you are done searching.
  • End-to-end encryption: Searches are end-to-end encrypted using AES-256 and HTTPS/SSL encryption.
  • Privacy-friendly maps search
  • Privacy-friendly video search

While Search Encrypt does have some interesting features, the privacy policy has a few red flags. It begins with:

Search Encrypt does not track search history in any user identifiable way.

This cryptic sentence suggests that Search Encrypt does indeed track search history, but attempts to anonymize the data. Their privacy policy further states:

Additionally, we store aggregated search data to improve product performance, but never store IP addresses or unique user identifiers in connection with such searches in order to ensure that none of the information collected in connection with your search activity is personally identifiable.

This is a pretty convoluted statement. Here are a few takeaways:

  • “Aggregated search data” is being logged and stored.
  • They claim to not store IP addresses “in connection with such searches” – but this does not mean that IP addresses are not getting logged and/or passed on to third parties. Rather, they are merely stating that IP addresses will not be associated with searches. Therefore it appears that IP addresses might be getting logged (another reason to use a VPN).

Search Encrypt also discloses in their privacy policy how they may share data with third parties if you alter the default settings in any way:

In circumstances where you have chosen to alter the default settings, then your personally identifiable information may be shared with third party site operators.

Lastly, it also appears that Search Encrypt may be operating out of the United States. From their Terms page:

Choice of Law and Venue.
This Agreement shall be interpreted and enforced in all respects under the laws of the State of Florida, United States as applicable to contracts to be performed entirely within Florida.

Who’s running the show?

Another question with Search Encrypt is that there isn’t much information about the company. The contact page shows an address in Cyprus and the legal venue is Florida (United States). The developer for the Search Encrypt Firefox extension is “SearchIncognito” – with a history of other “private search” extensions:

searchincognito

How does Search Encrypt make money?

Like some other private search engines, Search Encrypt makes money through affiliates, as they explain here:

In some circumstances, we may append an affiliate code to certain sites linked to our Search Encrypt product, either directly or through search results delivered to you. In doing so, we may collect a small commission in connection with your activity, but do not pass any of your personally identifiable information to any such third party sites.

This of course could be quite profitable with the right deals and enough users. DuckDuckGo also utilizes affiliates with Amazon and eBay for revenue, in addition to advertisements. (We’ll explain more about how private search engines make money below.)

I reached out to Search Encrypt asking for additional clarification on their data collection and user privacy policies. My emails were not answered.

Main drawbacks:

  • IP address and other data may be collected
  • Data may be shared with third parties if you modify default settings
  • Runs on Amazon servers in the US
  • Non-transparent company

Jurisdiction: Contact address is in Cyprus, legal venue is in the United States

https://www.searchencrypt.com/


Ecosia – The search engine that plants trees

ecosia search engine trees privacy 768x353

Similar to Givero, Ecosia donates a portion of profits to charity. Unlike Givero, however, it is strictly focused on planting trees. Ecosia is based in Germany and it’s promoted as a private search engine. While Ecosia does offer more privacy than the big search engines, it is also lacking in a few areas.

First, Ecosia collects all search queries and then anonymizes this data after seven days. There’s also a fair amount of data collection through website analytics, including your IP address, browser agent, location, and more. Lastly, Ecosia is assigning a Bing tracking ID to every user:

Ecosia also assigns a “Bing Client ID” in order to improve the quality of the search results. This value is a user-specific ID which enables Bing to deliver more relevant search results also based on previous searches. The ID is saved in the Ecosia cookie and retrieved during future visits.

While the “Bing Client ID” can be manually disabled by the user, most people probably are not even aware of it. This is because Ecosia has done a good job burying this information in their privacy policy. To read the full privacy policy, you will need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, and then click a light blue “READ MORE” button, which opens up more information.

Does Ecosia meet the criteria to be a “private search engine”? Probably not, but it’s still a good alternative to the big search engines, with commendable charity goals.

ecosia privacy search

Main drawbacks:

  • Not a “private search engine” by default
  • Bing ID is assigned to users (but can be disabled)
  • Search queries are saved for seven days

Jurisdiction: Germany

https://www.ecosia.org/


Additional search engines offering more privacy

Here are a few additional search engines that offer more privacy than Google search and may be a good fit for some people:

Jive Search

Jive Search is an open source private search engine with no tracking or data collection. It sources results from Yandex.

Peekier

Peekier is an interesting search engine that shows you a preview of websites in the search results. Peekier does not utilize tracking or logs (but search queries are temporarily stored “caching, statistics and service improvement purposes”).


Private search engine FAQs

Below we will answer some FAQs (frequently asked questions) with regards to private search engines:

  1. How do private search engines make money?
  2. DuckDuckGo vs Startpage
  3. Are US-based search engines safe?
  4. How to keep your searches private
  5. Considerations when choosing a private search engine

How do private search engines make money?

Generally speaking, there are three ways private search engines make money: contextual advertisements, affiliates, and donations. Let’s examine each of these revenue streams on their own.

1. Contextual advertisements

Just like with Google and Bing, many private search engines make money by placing advertisements in the search results, usually based on the search terms you entered. Unlike with Google and Bing, however, private search engines should only be serving ads based on your search term, rather than from all other data collection sources (email, browsing, etc.).

Here is an example from Startpage with the ads being displayed before the actual search results:

 how do private search engines make money

Private search engines make money from ads.

With some private search engines, IP addresses or truncated (anonymized) IP addresses are passed off to the search partner, in order to serve relevant ads for your general location.

2. Affiliate revenue

Another way that private search engines make money is through affiliates. DuckDuckGo is an example of this, with both Amazon and eBay:

DuckDuckGo is part of the affiliate programs of the eCommerce websites Amazon and eBay. When you visit those sites through DuckDuckGo, including when using !bangs, and subsequently make a purchase, we receive a small commission.

You may also see “online shopping” options above your search results, which are another form of affiliate revenue. Both Qwant and DuckDuckGo utilize affiliate “shopping” results for revenue.

Side note: When you buy something through an affiliate link, it never increases the price you pay. Rather, it simply transfers a small percentage of the profits (i.e. a commission) to the affiliate, which in this case is the private search engine.

3. Donations

Private search engines may also make money from donations. Anybody can donate to the project, regardless of whether it is an individual developer, a non-profit organization, or a private for-profit business.

If a search engine does not have other sources of revenue or good advertising deals with partners, donations become very important to ensure continued operations. For example, SwisscowsSearx, and YaCy all have donation options.

DuckDuckGo vs Startpage

DuckDuckGo is probably the most popular private search engine and it gets lots of attention when people are discussing alternatives to Google. While DuckDuckGo is good in many respects, I’m not sure it’s the best private search engine when you consider all factors and options available.

duckduckgo vs startpage

Here is a brief DuckDuckGo vs Startpage comparison:

  • Jurisdiction
    • DDG: Based in the United States (not very good for privacy)
    • SP: Based in the Netherlands (strong privacy laws)
  • Servers
    • DDG: Hosted on rental Amazon servers in the US
    • SP: Hosted on servers owned and operated by Startpage, with users being able to select an EU or US data center
  • Ownership
    • DDG: Started by Gabriel Weinberg in 2008. DDG is privately held and also backed by various VC investors.
    • SP: Started by David Bodnick in 1998, currently owned by Surfboard Holding B.V., a private company in the Netherlands with a strong track record of privacy activism. SP is privately held with no third party (outside) VC investors (that I could find).
  • Revenue
    • DDG: Earns revenue from Amazon and eBay affiliates, as well as ads that are served through Bing.
    • SP: Earns revenue from ads that are served from Google.
  • Search results and partnerships
    • DDG: Sources search results primarily from Bing and Yandex, but also has its own web crawler. DDG has a “strong” partnership with Yahoo.
    • SP: Sources results from Google, but has policies and anti-tracking methods in place to ensure user privacy.
  • Logs
    • DDG: Stores all search queries.
    • SP: Does not store search queries.
  • Audits
    • DDG: Has not been audited.
    • SP: Has been audited by independent third parties (see here and here)

Startpage comes out in top in this Startpage vs DuckDuckGo comparison.

Are US-based search engines safe?

Choosing a private search engine is all based on your unique needs and threat model. Therefore a private search engine that Bob considers to be safe, may not be adequate for Alice.

With regards to US-based search engines, and any other US businesses that handls (or has potential access) to private data, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. The United States has extensive (and powerful) surveillance programs, which are carried out by various branches of the government, such as the NSA.
  2. The US government has a long history of working with (and forcing) private tech companies to facilitate mass surveillance and bulk data collection efforts – see the PRISM program for details. (This raises questions about private search engines that are being hosted on Amazon infrastructure, a large US-based company.)
  3. US companies could be served National Security Letters or other lawful data collection demands, while also being prohibited from disclosing this due to gag orders.

These laws and capabilities essentially give the US government the authority to compel a legitimate privacy-focused company into a data collection tool for state agencies.

vpn online privacy

If a privacy-focused business were to be compromised, it would likely happen behind closed doors, without a word (or warning) to the users. This was the case with Lavabit, and rather than comply with the data requests, the founder was basically forced to shut down the business.

As a general rule, Restore Privacy does not recommend services that are based in the US. Nonetheless, it all depends on your threat model and how much privacy and security you need.

How to keep your searches private

Here are five basic tips for keeping your searches (and data in general) more private.

1. Use a private search engine

Using one of the private search engines in this guide will help keep your data safe from the likes of Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Choosing the best search engine all comes down to your unique preferences, needs, and threat model.

2. Use a private and secure browser

Just like with search engines, your browser can also reveal lots of private information about you to third parties:

  • Browsing history: all the websites you visit
  • Login credentials: usernames and passwords
  • Cookies and trackers: these are placed on your browser by the sites you visit
  • Autofill information: names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.
  • Metadata, which can be used for tracking and identification (browser fingerprinting)

See the secure browser guide for additional options, as well as the Firefox privacy guide for tweaks and modifications.

And speaking of browsers, many of the private search engines in this guide offer browser extensions to replace the default search engine for your browser (which is usually Google).

3. Use a good VPN service

If you use a good VPN service, you won’t have to worry about search engines logging your IP address and location. A VPN will encrypt and anonymize your traffic, while also replacing your IP address and location with that of the VPN server you’re connected to. There are many other uses for VPN services and they are an important privacy tool, especially since internet providers in many countries are now collecting browsing history.

Check out the best VPN report to see a handful of VPNs that did well in testing and are located in safe, privacy-friendly jurisdictions.

4. Use a good ad blocker

An ad blocker is another important privacy tool since most advertisements pose a major threat to your privacy by quietly collecting data for third-party advertising networks. Generally speaking, ads are tracking and data collection tools. Ads can also be a security threat (see malvertising), so it’s best to simply block advertisement and tracking networks. The ad blocker guide discusses various options for doing that.

There are of course many other privacy tools to consider, but these four are arguably among the most important for achieving a baseline level of privacy and security.

5. Log out!

Lastly, it’s also good to stay logged out of your accounts (Gmail, YouTube, Yahoo, etc.) when surfing the web, since trackers will record your browsing activity and link this to your data profile. This is especially problematic since most websites use Google Analytics and/or host Google ads. (Side note: if you’re still using Gmail, you may want to consider private and secure email alternatives.)

Another option is to utilize a specific browser for staying logged into various accounts, but then use a separate browser for general browsing activity (browser compartmentalization).

Considerations when choosing a private search engine

Here are a few different considerations when looking for the best search engine for privacy:

  • Search results – Some search engines may do well in the privacy category, but they don’t return very good results.
  • Privacy – Consider what information the search engine is logging, as well as the data that may be passed off to third parties and search partners (such as Bing).
  • Jurisdiction – Jurisdiction is an important factor to consider because it ultimately affects your data and privacy. Services based in the US, for example, are subject to the Patriot ActNational Security Letters, and may also be forced to collect user data without being allowed to disclose anything (due to gag orders).
  • Features – Some private search engines offer useful features, such as anonymous viewing (via proxy servers), search result filtering options, plugins, extensions, and more.
  • Trust – Trust is difficult to quantify and measure, but it’s a very important consideration. When considering the trust factor, you may want to look at the history of the company and the individuals behind it.

Finding the best search engine for your needs is a subjective process, and there’s no single “best private search engine” that applies to everyone. Test and research the different options to find the best fit for you.

Revised and updated on May 9, 2019.

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