Charlie Harvey

A Short(ish) Guide to Searching the Web Securely

One of the things that most of us do every day is searching for stuff on the web. Modern search engines are great for finding random wikipedia entries or videos of snowboarding crows. But search engine companies aren’t entirely respectful of our right to privacy. In fact they make a living by professionally disregarding it. This is a short guide to a couple of approaches to keeping your search habits out of the hands of advertisers, search engine employees, computer criminals, cops and other such undesirables.

Why bother?

When you search for something, most search engine providers keep a record of that search. First they sell space on your search results page to the highest bidder. Then they use it to build a profile of you, which can be frighteningly easy to tie to you in real life. This profile can be requested by law enforcement types — sometimes without you being informed about it. There have also been cases where search engines have been hacked, where they have leaked search data and where employees have gone snooping through these profiles like stalkers.

But it isn’t just your search engine that has access to your searches. When you follow one of the links from a search, the result is passed on to the website you are visiting. These sites can then target ads at you which is annoying to say the least. What’s more some companies are deciding on whether you are entitled to life insurance, credit and so on , based partly on what you search for. And just as the icing on the privacy cake, it might be that your ISP is keeping track of your searches too.

Privacy, however, isn’t the only problem with most search engines. Remember the profiles that Google et al keep of everything you do on their site? They use those profiles to customise your search results. Gradually, competing points of view are hidden from you, until your online world becomes a filter bubble where everyone agrees with you. Take a look at Eli Pariser’s filter bubble talk.

How to keep your searches private

I’m hoping that by this point you’ll be concerned enough to spend a couple of minutes setting your browser up to avoid search engines getting all your data like that. There are two simple ways to do that.

  • Use a privacy-aware search engine
  • Anonymise your searches with a proxy

Using a different search engine

There are a few different privacy aware search engines about. I’ll look at my favourite, DuckDuckGo in depth. There are others — Scroogle and ixquick are also good options.

Setting up DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is a rather full featured and privacy-respecting search engine. It does not log your searches, does not pass on your searches to other sites, uses an encrypted connection by default and doesn’t leave any trace on your machine by default.

I use the Iceweasel browser, which is known to many as Firefox. Here’s how you can set up Firefox or Iceweasel to use DuckDuckGo as your default search engine.

1. The search box

screenshot of firefox search engine choosing box

On Debian Squeeze, DuckDuckGo is one of the default search engine options. Using it in the search box is just a case of selecting it from the dropdown menu as in the picture.

If you’re on another OS like Windows or OSX, you can grab the DuckDuckGo firefox extension. Click the Add to Firefox button, tick start using right away in the popup and then click Add. You may still have to change the order of your search engines in the Manage Search Engines menu at the bottom of the list in the picture.

2. Set up the address bar

Annoyingly you’re now only half way finished. One of the neat things about Firefox is that you can type something into the address box and, if it doesn’t look like a website, Firefox will search for it automatically. We’ll set it up so that it uses DuckDuckGo instead of Google for the task.

about:config warning screen

Type about:config into your address bar and hit enter. You will get a scary-sounding warning. Click I’ll be careful, I promise. Hopefully you will be.

Next, type keyword.URL into the box labelled filter. You should now see just one line where your web page would normally be.

changing the keyword.URL setting in firefox

OK, now double click that line and cut and paste the following into the box that pops up

Almost there. You just need to click OK on the popup and try typing something you want to search for into your address bar. Your results will now be coming from DuckDuckGo.

Only useful for geeks: set up vimperator

You might have picked up that the tone of this article is less geeky than usual — I’m hoping that bits of it will be useful for the new Tech Tools For Activism booklet. This section is the exception. Unless you’re a geek, you’ll want to skip this bit.

If you are using Vimperator and you want to use DuckDuckGo as your default search provider, first install the plugin as above. Then add the following to your .vimperatorrc file set ds=duckduckgo You can of course :set ds during your session, but you’ll need to restart FireFox to reload your .vimperatorrc.

Anonymising your searches with a proxy

If for some reason you must use one of the major search engines, you can get a bit of anonymity by using a proxy. Now, Tor is a great option, which you can learn more about over on the Tor site; it has the advantage of anonymising all your browsing, but takes a while to set up. I’m going to look at a Google-specific option, called Googlesharing.

Installing Googlesharing

How googlesharing works

Googlesharing "aims to provide a level of anonymity that will prevent Google from tracking your searches, movements, and what websites you visit". Every time you send a search to Google, it is rerouted through one of the Googlesharing servers, where it is mixed up with other searches so that it becomes impossible to track what any single user of Googlesharing was searching for.

Installing Googlesharing into your Firefox is dead easy.

  1. Download the GoogleSharing Firefox Addon.
  2. Restart Firefox.
  3. You are now browsing with GoogleSharing. All of the appropriate Google traffic will be redirected through a GoogleSharing proxy.
  4. By default, GoogleSharing is enabled. To toggle the GoogleSharing status, left-click on the green text that says GoogleSharing Enabled in the bottom right hand corner of your browser window.

A final thought

Both DuckDuckGo and GoogleSharing are good solutions to the privacy issues that we all face. They aren’t free to run for the volunteers who make them, though. So, if you end up using either project, you should really, really consider donating to them.


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