There’s a quiet but surging rebellion developing against the major Internet search engines because of the “Snowden effect,” insiders are reporting to WND.
That effect is a newly heightened concern over spying, specifically government spying, that might be targeting everyday citizens.
Snowden, of course, is the former National Security Agency contractor who stole thousands of pages of secret documents and started leaking them to the public. It is because of him that President Obama held a news conference on Friday and announced changes to the NSA spy programs.
It is because of Snowden that multiple lawsuits have been launched against the federal government over the NSA activities, including two cases by attorney Larry Klayman, who has obtained a federal judge’s ruling that the operations are likely unconstitutional.
But the average consumer isn’t pursuing a lawsuit or making federal policy changes. They are just changing their search engines.
Consumer privacy expert Dr. Katherine Albrecht addresses this trend as spokesperson for private search engines StartPage.com and Ixquick.com.
“Every time Edward Snowden shares a new revelation about government spying, we get an influx of new users,” said said.
There have been recurring surges ever since June when Snowden began leaking details about programs like PRISM.
But what’s notable, she explained, “is the sustained upward trend in the numbers. In 2013 these search engines doubled their traffic, serving up over 1.25 billion searches for the year.”
Currently, the company reports more than five million searches per weekday. Albrecht says they are bracing for record growth in 2014 and don’t expect the trend to end anytime soon.
“It may have taken Internet users a while to make sense of Snowden’s revelations and figure out what to do about them,” she observed, “but now they are clearly responding in huge numbers.”
Albrecht said it appears consumers are upset that mainstream search engines spy on them in order to create personal profiles and serve up targeted advertising. On top of that, she added, “Consumers are rightfully outraged that governments are eavesdropping on those services and commandeering access to those databases.”
StartPage and Ixquick are better insulated from U.S. surveillance initiatives because they are located in Europe, where consumer privacy is better protected by law. What’s more, they simply cannot turn over data since they don’t collect any to begin with, according to Albrecht.
StartPage and Ixquick services are provided free to consumers, but offer tremendous value, which Albrecht says is why they are now the largest anonymous search engines in the world. StartPage and Ixquick are the only search engines to offer a free proxy service and their privacy promises are audited and certified by an independent organization, Europrise.
She said consumers also turn to the search engines because they provide better, more pure results than the big names. StartPage.com serves up Google results, but doesn’t manipulate those results based on who’s doing the searching because users are completely anonymous. Ixquick delivers results from multiple search engines and displays them according to relevance and quality, as well.
Because of customer demand, StartPage and Ixquick executives recently launched a new privacy-friendly email company: StartMail.com. While they expected a good response, they were shocked when over 50,000 people signed up to beta test the new service, which is rolling out this year.
“We thought we’d get interest from a few thousand people, but the response was so overwhelming, we were forced to close the beta signup early,” said Albrecht.
Officials for StartPage.com and its sister search engine, Ixquick.com, said their clients do not have their web movements monitored, like those who use Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, PalTalk, AOL and Skype.
WND had reported in 2010 when Albrecht, a Harvard-trained privacy expert, warned, “It would blow people’s minds if they knew how much information the big search engines have on the American public. In fact, their dossiers are so detailed they would probably be the envy of the KGB.”
It happens every day, Albrecht explained. When an unfamiliar topic crosses people’s minds, they often go straight to Google, Yahoo or Bing and enter key terms into those search engines. Every day, more than a billion searches for information are performed on Google alone.
“If you get a rash between your toes, you go into Google,” she said. “If you have a miscarriage, you go into Google. If you are having marital difficulties, you look for a counselor on Google. If you lose your job, you look for unemployment benefit information on Google.”
Albrecht said Americans unwittingly share their most private thoughts with search engines, serving up snippets of deeply personal information about their lives, habits, troubles, health concerns, preferences and political leanings.
“We’re essentially telling them our entire life stories – stuff you wouldn’t even tell your mother – because you are in a private room with a computer,” she said. “We tend to think of that as a completely private circumstance. But the reality is that they make a record of every single search you do.”
The search engines have sophisticated algorithms to mine data from searches and create very detailed profiles about Americans. She said those profiles are stored on servers and may fall into the wrong hands – for example, the federal government’s detailed files on unwitting U.S. citizens.
In a December 2009 interview with CNBC, Google CEO Eric Schmidt admitted that search engines may turn over citizens’ private information to the government.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” Schmidt said. “But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And it’s important, for example, that we are all subject to the United States Patriot Act. It is possible that information could be made available to the authorities.”