What Is the Best Search Engine for Privacy?

Privacy has, for the past several years, been a particularly prominent theme in the online community, and it looks like it’s about to get a whole lot bigger with the recent news that the Senate has overturned the FCC’s ruling that prevented ISPs from sharing or selling data about their customers’ browsing habits without explicit permission.

This is bad news for anyone who values their privacy and joins the massive personal information that we already yield to third-party companies under nebulous circumstances. Privacy-focused search engines like StartPage, SearX and DuckDuckGo are a good starting point for keeping your personal data private where possible, but which one does the best job?

My personal pick for its balance of high-quality searches and respect for privacy, StartPage has the benefit of replicating Google’s search results by sending your searches to Google, then returning them to display for you. Google doesn’t know it was you – all it knows is that StartPage requested the information which doesn’t tie back to you in any way.

StartPage also uses top-end SSL encryption and doesn’t use cookies or keep track of IP addresses or searches. It searches with all the power of Google but without the intrusiveness. One of my favorite features is the option to let you search by proxy, so even your browsing within websites can’t be tracked when you visit them.

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In a testament to their seriousness about keeping your data private, StartPage even removed Yahoo from their search results when it was unveiled that the company had willingly helped the NSA snoop on Yahoo account holders. Good on you, StartPage!

Probably the most famous of the privacy-focused search engines (it does, after all, have a cute duck as its mascot), DuckDuckGo is a poster child of privacy. Its search results are, marginally, the fastest of all the private search engines, although it should be noted that it sources its searches from Yahoo. That shouldn’t have any privacy implications, as Yahoo doesn’t have access to individual users’  DuckDuckGo searches (though their history with the NSA makes them hard to trust). Many people, however, feel that Yahoo isn’t as good as Google at yielding search results.

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Like StartPage, DuckDuckGo makes revenue using ads and affiliate-linking to sites like Amazon, but all ads are clearly demarcated, and the affiliate linking doesn’t contain any personal info, so your search results are safe.

What’s instantly likable about SearX is the fact that it’s open-source, therefore run by volunteers with absolutely no interests in profit – that means no ads, affiliate nonsense, or any such things that you might not feel comfortable with.

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While SearX’s official public version has all the privacy-friendly bells and whistles of others on this list, it encourages Debian/Ubuntu users to create their own instance of the search engine where you have complete control over how it performs searches and therefore complete control over your privacy. It’s a bit of a fiddly process, but if you fancy giving it a go then here are the instructions.

If you don’t want to give up the “home comforts” of familiar and undeniably useful search engines like Bing and Yahoo (Google’s not included here), then you might want to give Disconnect a try. You need to grab the extension first. Once you’ve done that, click the extension, select the search engine that you wish to use, type your query, and Disconnect will do the search on your behalf and take you to the results on that search engine’s page.

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This one’s great for individual searches, though once you’re on the search engine’s page, any subsequent searching you do there will once again be trackable, so it’s not quite as robust as the others.

The lesson here is that there are different search engines for varying degrees of privacy. For pure, hardcore privacy, creating your own instance of SearX is your best bet, but this could prove difficult for many people, and you’d be sacrificing the feature-richness of DuckDuckGo and StartPage. Then there’s Disconnect, which sits as an extension in your browser and is useful to have sitting there alongside whatever other search engine you use.

My vote, based on my needs, goes to StartPage, as it’s the closest Google replicant in terms of presentation while offering the same levels of privacy as its peers. (The option to go onto actual sites via a proxy is also a feature I find particularly useful on a day-to-day basis.)

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