Tech for Troglodytes: Five steps to protect your online privacy

You know what’s creepy? Those ads that show up on the sidebar, which have clearly tapped into topics you’ve searched online.  For instance, type “snow” into your search engine. The next thing you know, your e-mail page and search results are loaded with advertisements for ski resorts.

Screen shot 2014-01-17 at 11.19.30 AM
This morning, searched ski resorts, and e-mailed with a friend about her application for a massage therapist license. Ta Da! Google is on it.

Welcome to the Filter Bubble, where search engines not only share your personal information with advertisers, but also censor what you read by directing you to sites you are already inclined to agree with.


The Russians aren’t the only ones who try to ignore people they disagree with.

If you regularly click on Huffington Post and Vanity Fair, you’ll get one kind of result.

Aristocratic heads on pikes. Photo source: Wikipedia

If you click on the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, you get different results.


This can be handy if you’re in a hurry and looking for something specific, say violin strings or orthopedic shoes. But what if you want to make an intimate inquiry about, say, Viagra (for a friendof course), and don’t want sex ads in your sidebar? What if you are looking for unbiased information about a topic that is controversial and complicated, say, genetically modified foods?

Check out alternative search engines, that is, alternatives to the big engines like Google, Yahoo and AOL. There are several which do not collect personal data, are free, do a good job of filtering spam and offer the same results for the same searches, to everyone. Here are four:

  • YaCy allows searches of the entire public internet, with no censorship. Everyone’s content is equal, and search requests are not stored
  • Apache Solr is another stand-alone server, reputed to operate like YaCy. I haven’t done much with this myself, because the language on the website is over my head, but reputable tech websites like Mashable recommend it.
  • Izquick allows you to search several search engines quickly and privately. It bills itself as the most powerful and private search engine in the world.
  • Here’s the one I chose:


Duck Duck Go (yes, named after the kid’s game Duck, Duck, Goose) does not collect or share personal information.  It uses software that directs internet traffic through a network of 5000 or so relays, helping protect privacy.  Searches are compiled from about 50 secondary sources such as Wikipedia, Yahoo! Search BOSS, Wikipedia, Wolfram AlphaBing and others.

Here’s how to set it up:

  1. Go to the Duck Duck Go website, click on “add to Browser” (lower left corner), click on the downloaded file.
  2. Find the newly installed icon in your toolbar

    Screen shot 2014-01-17 at 2.30.35 PM
    Can you see the Duck? Try squinting
  3. Click on it. You are given the option to have all your searches done by Duck Duck (by default), or not.Screen shot 2014-01-17 at 2.36.09 PM
  4. Note the option to “remember last search” in case you like to retrace your steps; and the “featured bangs,”  which allow you to search particular sites, by putting an exclamation point in front of the listed code, !yt for Youtube, for instance.
  5. The web browser I use, Safari, does not make it easy to install Duck Duck directly, but it does offer it as an extension. To install,  click on Safari >> Preferences >> Extensions >> Get Extensions (button in lower right corner) >> More (button on far right) >> Search tools >> scroll down to the Safari approved Duck Duck version and install.

Warning: the Duck Duck Go search engine does a good job of directing you to unbiased search results, but

  • It does not protect you from government spying.  The NSA can bust through any protective coding (thank you Edward Snowden for getting the word out). If you fill your searches with words like bomb and al Qaeda, you might well become a person of particular interest to shadowy organizations, no matter what search engine you use.
  • Duck Duck Go involves internet searches only, not to e-mail. If you mention something like “massage therapy” in an e-mail (like I did this morning) you will find massage ads in your e-mail sidebar.
  • If you want to do research directly from original sources, look to some of the other alternatives listed above.  Duck Duck is a hybrid that uses other search engines to filter and crowd source information.
  • Historical searches are not saved by Duck Duck.  If you routinely look up old searches, use an engine that collects your data.

That’s it. Do you protect the privacy of your searches?  If so, how? Do you think it’s worth it?


  • Hi Julia 🙂

    I use StartPages which gives me the big G’s search results through Ixquick. I also use a browser add on – Do Not Track Me – from Abine.

    Back in the summer when I was researching like crazy for my book, I felt very uneasy with some of the search terms I was using.

    I was looking for ways to kill at the individual level and the WMD level. A search for details on human decapitation led me to a truly bizarre website for cannibals, with full instructions for butchering a human. Wowza!

    All topped off with searching out locations on Google Maps – including airports, Chicago’s mass transit system and nuclear power stations. So my paranoia was running high!

    But no knocks at the door so far 🙂 (famous last words).


    • The Donner Blitzen special?

      You’ve gotta be on someone’s radar. Just don’t open the door to guys that arrive in black SUVs, wearing ear pieces.

      I like Izquick too. Thanks for the tip on Abine.


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