A search engine that allows users to be anonymous has had a sharp increase in traffic after whistle-blower Edward Snowden said Washington – and Google – was watching our online patterns.
The Prism surveillance scandal ramped up DuckDuckGo, which calls itself a privacy-respecting alternate search service. “Google tracks you. We don’t,” runs one of its ads. One enterprising netizen has compiled a list of services, from social networks to email clients, and even web browsers, that offer better protection from surveillance.
The DuckDuckGo search engine does not save search history, date and time of the search, information about your computer (such as your IP address, or unique identifiers stored in browser cookies) or log-in data for other services (such as names and e-mail addresses).
The search engine aggressively filters out spam sites, and while Google aggregates search data to build up a picture of individual users, DuckDuckGo treats each search separately so as to not aggregate data. This does not prevent tracking if someone has direct access to your computer, but in the wake of the Snowden allegations, DuckDuckGo offers a solution to privacy as public distrust of internet companies grows.
News reports have named nine companies – including Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo – as having turned over user data upon US government requests. But the firms have denied that they gave the US National Security Agency direct access to their servers, and have recently begun releasing figures on government requests to prove their transparency.
Indian computer users are amongst the world’s most advanced in protecting their privacy and online data, Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bangalore-based non-profit Center for Internet and Society, which holds “Facebook resistance workshops” said, “Stop using proprietary software, shift to free/open source software for your operating system and applications on your computer and phone. Android is not sufficiently free; shift to CyanogenMod, an open source replacement firmware for smart phones and tablet computers based on the Android mobile operating system. he suggests encrypting all sensitive Internet traffic and email using software like TOR and GNU Privacy Guard. Use community based infrastructure such as Open Street Maps and Wikipedia. Opt for alternatives to mainstream services. For example, replace Google Search with DuckDuckGo.”
Use of licensed or proprietary software, which bind users legally when it comes to use and distribution, seems to be losing favour among an informed niche. While alternative software cannot offer absolute protection, it is being seen as a “better-than-nothing” option. Anonymisers (explain the term) like TOR, though also not entirely foolproof, are also a popular option among those who wish to keep their web usage untraceable. Once installed on a browser, anonymisers can hide the route that digital traffic takes when sent from your computer over a network before emerging at an end node.
There is one caveat, though. Some websites can deny service to users operating on certain anonymising networks. Also, anonymisers are known to reduce browsing speeds.
Former CIA analyst Snowden, who has fled to Moscow via Hong Kong, leaked documents revealing an extensive US and UK surveillance of people’s e-mails, phone calls and other communications. Since the revelations, DuckDuckGo’s traffic has rocketed.
The website said its daily average of three million direct searches since the Prism scandal broke compares to only 1.8 million direct searches for the entire month of May. DuckDuckGo posted the figures on Twitter.
Despite the traffic boost, DuckDuckGo, founded in 2008, is still relatively small as an internet search company. Google facilitates an estimated 5.1 billion searches per day. In the US alone in May, Google generated 13.4 billion search queries, followed by Microsoft with 3.5 billion, and Yahoo with 2.4 billion, according to ComScore.
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