Like a lot of people, you may be vaguely uncomfortable with how much Google knows about you. It makes a great deal of money mining your search history in order to help various companies serve you targeted ads, and even though it doesn’t sell your data to advertisers now, you never know if it might change its mind sometime down the road.
So what can you do about it? The Boston-based privacy company Abine has one solution. Earlier this year it launched Private Search, a service designed to shield your Google queries so the search giant can’t link what you’re searching for to its increasingly detailed profile of you.
Private Search is easy to set up and use. The best part is that you don’t really have to change your behavior–or even log out of YouTube and Gmail—to get it working.
But it’s not perfect. Private Search currently only works with Firefox, for instance, and it’s not clear when—or if—it will ever work with other popular browsers such as Chrome. It also won’t protect you on other search engines like Bing or Yahoo, although Abine says it’s working on that.
You have to sign up and opt in to the service, and its protection—against a still somewhat hypothetical threat—isn’t foolproof against every possible tracking technology. For instance, Private Search won’t shield you from canvas fingerprinting, a tricky new user-tracking technique that’s emerged over the past year at some sites (though not Google).
Why Private Search?
Perhaps in response to public pressure, Google offers users concerned about privacy various opt-out options. Users can opt out of ad preferences and disable their search history in Google’s dashboard.
And so far, the search engine behemoth does not share the information it tracks with data brokers, and no data changes hands when advertisers target specific demographics using Google’s ad network. But the possibility of accidentally leaking information still exists—for example, if you create an account on a website after clicking on a targeted ad, you may be unwittingly giving demographic information to that company.
As Abine CTO Andrew Sudbury put it to me:
Your search history is part of what’s being used to create a profile of you, your demographics, your propensity to buy certain types of services, and all of these data profiles are slowly and inexorably being exposed to more and more commercial uses because that’s just the way the market forces are pushing them.
Additionally, mass market profiling is increasingly becoming more invasive in ways that aren’t always easy to either predict or immediately pinpoint. This isn’t just an abstract threat. I spoke with Adi Kamdar, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he described the problem eloquently:
What we’ve seen when it comes to data brokers is we see them targeting poor populations or certain disenfranchised populations or people who are older or more subject to falling for scams or falling for payday loans or taking financially risky investments, or something along those lines. That’s the sort of population that should be most worried about this but is probably the least exposed to these sorts of tools or information about privacy tools or data brokers.
Private Search is an easy choice for your less technically-savvy friends or family members who may be more vulnerable to potential future threats, and also less likely to hear about them.
Do Not Track Me
Launched in late January, Private Search is part of Abine’s freemium privacy suite Blur, which combines the company’s previously separate privacy tools DoNotTrackMe and MaskMe. Blur includes tools for masking email addresses, your phone number and credit card data; blocking tracking by data miners; and managing online passwords.
The Private Search tool allows users to tap into a randomized pool of made-up identities—ones that come with prepopulated tracking cookies and user-agent strings. Cookies allow websites to track an individual’s browsing activity and to identify return viewers, while user agent strings provide sites with information about your browser and operating system.
Using fake identities prevents all that from happening.
How To Blur Your Searches
After you’ve set up the Blur extension in Firefox and opted into Private Search, you’re ready to go.
Private Search provides a new made-up identity for each individual search. It then funnels the request through an SSL tunnel, so that the search is encrypted—even Abine can’t see what you’re searching for. And every phrase or topic you search appears as if it is unconnected to previous searches, since each query is sent through Abine’s server with an entirely different IP address (which is yet another avenue by which websites can track people).
Your search requests are modified before leaving your browser in a way that breaks the identity connection between your searches and the rest of your tabs. That means you can keep your YouTube tab open with all of your videos, and stay logged into Gmail, all without allowing Google to link your search queries with your account (and identity).
One thing to look out for: Private Search will protect queries made through Firefox’s search bar, but you won’t necessarily know it. Sudbury told me the extension isn’t currently tweaking the search-results page to include the blue-colored text that lets you know Private Search is on the case.
Other Ways To Evade The Search Police
“One of the real problems with privacy on the Web is that it’s simply too hard,” Sudbury says. “Companies say, ‘look, all of these controls exist, so people don’t need to be protected,’ but these controls are like ridiculous. To implement them is ridiculous.”
This makes Private Search a great option for casual Web users with limited technical knowledge or a low tolerance for disabling and resetting plugins. If you’re so inclined, though, there are plenty of (somewhat more cumbersome) alternatives to the Blur tool:
- Browsers such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage don’t track users the way that Google does, but the results provided are considerably less refined.
- Using a VPN offers protection from hackers at cafes, and swaps your IP address with that of your VPN’s, but it will not hide your identity from Google.
- Plugins such as AdBlock Plus, Privacy Badger, Ghostery, and Disconnect—as well as some of Blur’s other features—can help stop some types of online tracking, though they may render some sites unusable, and they don’t block everything. These solutions work best for more sophisticated users, as it is sometimes necessary to disable the trackers in order to use specific sites.
To be clear, Private Search isn’t a solution for, say, Chinese dissidents or anyone else wanting to hide their identity from the government. In such cases, the Tor browser is a better option. Tor prevents Google (or anyone else) from knowing your IP address, it keeps no history, and it clears cookies and cache between each session. Tails is an entire operating system that operates using Tor.
But Tor is slower than other browsers due to the way it reroutes traffic to preserve anonymity. In addition, features such as video playing are disabled, certain sites have restrictions (such as captchas), and some sites even block traffic from Tor.
Google Chrome’s Incognito mode doesn’t store cookies, but it also doesn’t hide your IP address. Additionally, you’d need to open a new Incognito tab with a clear cache and new set of cookies for each search to avoid them being linked with one another during each session. And using Incognito mode requires you to re-enter passwords for password-protected sites for each session.
Lead image by ilouque