When you use search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo, your activity is tracked. Your personal data -- location, political leanings, sexual orientation, and medical condition -- is collected, stored and can be used in ways that might surprise you.
Most often the data collected during an Internet search is used to market products and services to you. Many Internet users tolerate this invasion of privacy, seeing it as an inevitable, if annoying, downside of using a search engine's services. But as Internet users become increasingly wary about how their personal information might be used some day, alternative, completely private, search engines such as Startpage and DuckDuckGo are becoming popular.
These private search engines offer Secure Socket Layer (SSL) or HTTPS encryption to protect searches from eavesdropping by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or WiFi providers and hackers. Startpage can be easily added to the drop-down menu inside a Firefox browser. DuckDuckGo can be added to Chrome, IE, Firefox, and Safari browsers. Privacy-protected search engines can help Internet users avoid what is known as a "filter bubble." Depending on your search history, the major search engines will show you the results they think you'll like most. If you search "Obama," you may get a link to MSNBC at the top of the list, while the same search could land your friend on Fox News. Filter bubbles are designed with a view toward effective marketing, since most people tend to buy what they already know and like. But such biased search results can be an impediment to effective free speech, learning, and critical thinking essential in any democracy.
Prvate searching is recommended by the Internet watchdog group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF warns that collected information has other potential uses that could go well beyond targeted advertising. In an increasing number of cases, the US government is given unrestrained access to personal data.
According the Business Insider, in the first six months of 2012,
"US authorities asked for private details of Google users on 7,969 occasions, up from 6,321 in the last reporting period. The number is more than a third of the 20,938 requests for users' details worldwide. Google fully or partially complied with 90% of those requests. ...
In an earlier report appearing in Forbes, Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, is quoting as observing that
most other Internet companies and telecommunications firms likely hand over users’ private information just as often, but don’t tell their users anything about their policies. “If police have a valid court order, Google doesn’t have many options,” says Soghoian. “They’re the only ones that provide these numbers. Everyone else is cowering in the shadows. Companies don’t want their customers to know they’re handing over their data.”
The average Internet user may believe he has nothing to fear from a government inspection of his data, and he is probably right. However, what is considered potentially threatening to US security interests has become increasingly vague and broad since 9/11. By virtue of a few added sections to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Executive Office now has the power to deny due process to any US citizen who may be suspected of merely associating with terrorists. In theory, if not in practice yet, no material evidence backing up such suspicions is necessary to make an arrest. At the same time, the definition of "terrorist" is becoming increasing vague. According to training documents produced in part by the Department Homeland Security, peace activists are potentially terrorists, as is any one who is "anti-global, suspicious of centralized federal authority."
Most personal search data requested by the government concerns piracy cases, human trafficking, or child pornography. Even so, Internet privacy activists are concerned that all this data is potentially a powerful political tool, and if "power corrupts," it might be best to remove the temptation. Even the most trusting citizens might want to begin using private search engines like Startpage and DuckDuckGo, just in case.
The most sensitive information is communicated through email and many search engines are linked to email service as well. In a recent press release, Startpage spokesperson Dr. Katherine Albrecht announced that Startpage plans to launch a private email service called Startmail early next year.
"We want to give our users the security of knowing their email is never read and their search results are not biased or tampered with in any way. We don't collect or store any personal information. Nada, zilch, zero .... If I send an email to somebody, I don't expect my comments to be reflected in my search results the next day. Email messages should be private and so should search results, and the twain should never meet."