Is DuckDuckGo safe? Why you should make the switch from Google

It's no secret that Google makes money by harvesting user data and using it for advertising purposes. Every search you make, every Gmail you receive, every YouTube video you watch contributes to your advertizing profile. In an effort to reclaim some privacy, a number of alternative providers have popped up over the years. 

This guide will have a closer look at DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search engine, that claims to provide services on par with Google... without hoovering up all of your personal data. 

What is DuckDuckGo? 

DuckDuckGo is a search engine created in 2008 by entrepreneur and privacy advocate Gabriel Weinberg. Weinberg has been one of the world's most vocal critics of the way Google handles user data: 

The issue with Google is they run four of the biggest ad networks in the world and only one is search-related. The rest are on millions of sites and apps across the Internet and they use tracking to do better at ads on these third-party sites

Gabriel Weinberg

Whereas Google will use third party tracking and an extensive ad network to serve users with hyper-targeted ads based on a detailed breakdown of their browsing habits, DuckDuckGo instead displays ads based solely on the terms you search. 

Direct searches on DuckDuckGo increased by 600% after Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA were made public. At present has a user base of around 25 million. 

Is DuckDuckGo safe? 

As search engines go: definitely. Gabriel Weinberg's whole business model is based on ensuring that user browsing sessions are kept private and minimal information is logged. It's much, much safer than Google. 

When using Google, Bing, or any other mainstream search engine, clicking on links sends data about your browsing habits to the page you've clicked on. Information like your IP address is also shared with the site. 

DuckDuckGo, on the other hand, doesn't send the phrases you type into their engine, or your browsing activity, to any websites you search for. A site may know you clicked on a link to it, but it won't know how you got to that link, nor anything else you've been searching. 

Commenting on whether DuckDuckGo cooperated with the authorities in 2017, Weinberg said that he thinks that "law enforcement has essentially understood we don't have anything to give them; they don't really come knocking for things."  

Any company based in the US could be commanded by the government to start logging activities of its users. But until that happens – and I'm sure users would know about it – Weinberg seems confident that DuckDuckGo's lack of records means a subpoena or other court order would return nothing. 

Throwing out 'opt-out'

Google and Facebook often defend their intrusive approach to their users' internet browsing experience by saying you can 'opt-out' of their tracking and advertising at any time. 

the Big Tech companies know better than anyone that most of their users are woefully misinformed about the ways in which their data is used and shared and, even worse, that they rarely read through privacy statements. 

They then exploit this knowledge gap when backed into a corner, often claiming their users can always "opt-out" and absolving themselves of responsibility in the process. 

DuckDuckGo has directly challenged this line of argument on a number of occasions, and Gabriel Weinberg has spent a long time arguing that this sort of tracking should, at the very least, be something people opt-in to. 

So, what's the catch?

Well, in terms of privacy, there isn't really one. All things considered, DuckDuckGo is a significantly safer alternative to mainstream browsers such as Google, Microsoft Edge, or Safari. 

DuckDuckGo works with a much smaller amount of search data, and we've been bred to think search engines need tonnes of it to find us what we want. 

Most of the time people make basic, straightforward search requests that require little personal information yet still return accurate results. 

For example, if someone was to search the phrase 'BBC Sport', search engines don't need reams and reams of cross-corroborated user data to work out what page in their web index I'm looking for (surprise surprise, it's the sports section of the BBC's website). 

But if you do want something more specific, sometimes DuckDuckGo just doesn't have enough data to provide results in the highly personalized and hyper-targeted way Google does. However, it's a small price to pay for massively increased privacy and Google not sharing your data around with advertising companies, but it's good to know before you download it! 

See for yourself

Privacy policies can get companies into big trouble in countries like the US and UK if they are found to be in contempt of their own rules. This is why, often, they're unreasonably long – it's businesses covering their backs.

This means it's not uncommon to find something questionable buried in a privacy policy – many free VPNs, for example, admit to selling data to third parties in their privacy policy. 

All in all, this means that things written in privacy policies have weight – they aren't just a marketing tool. So, it's worth looking at DuckDuckGo's privacy policy to see for yourself it's the private browsing experience you're looking for. 

Alternatively, if you'd like to hear more from Gabriel Weinberg, check out our interview with him from 2017, where he goes into more detail about why he created DuckDuckGo. 

Is DuckDuckGo + a VPN even safer?

Yes! pairing a VPN and DuckDuckGo is a great way to enhance your privacy even further – in fact, DuckDuckGo recommends doing just that on their website. 

DuckDuckGo doesn't store your IP address for search purposes, but if you start to send internet traffic other than DuckDuckGo searches, then it may be possible for someone so inclined to find out. 

That's where a VPN comes in. Designed with similar ethical and privacy considerations as DuckDuckGo, VPNs reroute all your traffic through a private server before it reaches the internet, which means the IP address websites on the other side will see is that of the VPN server, not yours. 

The best VPNs will also offer malware and virus protection and a host of servers around the world to connect to. With so much geo-restricted content out there, it's got great entertainment value as well as being more secure. 

So make sure you download a VPN – as well as DuckDuckGo – for an all-round better browsing experience! 

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

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