In my last post I said some companies do better than others at scrubbing your confidential search logs as time passes. Google appears to be the worst of the major search engines from a privacy point of view; Ask.com, with AskEraser turned on, is among the best.
But there’s a far better answer than looking for the search company that erases your history fastest and most thoroughly. The best way preserve your privacy is to use a search engine that does not keep your logs in the first place. That’s the approach used by Startpage and its European parent company, Ixquick. Recently I took Startpage for a test drive, and after a week I made it my default search engine. (More on Techland: The Snoop in Your Browser)
Startpage makes the simple promise to store nothing about your identity — not with a cookie, not with a flash cookie, not by IP address, and not with any other trick. To make your searches invisible at waypoints along the information highway, such as your office network hub or your Internet provider, you can and should connect to Startpage with an encrypted (SSL) connection, the same way you link to your bank. Just type https://startpage.com instead of http://startpage.com. Startpage says this adds security and slows your searches only slightly.
Should you believe Startpage’s assurances? That’s always a valid question in the world of security. If your life or livelihood depends on it, no. But European data protection authorities, whose laws are much stricter than their American counterparts, certified the company’s privacy promises. There are enough whistleblowers and hackers and forensic watchdogs out there that we would probably have heard by now if Startpage and Ixquick were playing games with words.
Startpage offers another big privacy benefit. When you find what you’re looking for and click a link, Startpage does not disclose your search terms to the site you visit next. For example, you might rather not tell the IRS webmaster that you found this information about tax fraud on www.irs.gov by searching for “legal defense against tax evasion.” Google and most other search engines pass exactly that information along when you click on a link. Startpage does not. (More on Techland: Encryption (Part 2): How to Back Up Encrypted Files)
My search results have been about as good with Startpage as with Google, Bing and Yahoo. You can add Startpage to your search bar, in several browsers, with this add-on. If anyone has a better tool to suggest, I’d love to hear about it.
P.S. Yesterday I cited Aolstalker as a cautionary tale on the privacy risks of letting search companies build up big files on you. That was based on their official policy and official behavior. It happens from time to time that things get worse. The investigative journalist (and my former student) Sebastian Jones sent me this creepy story about a rogue inside Google who allegedly used that kind of private data to stalk teenagers.
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