DuckDuckGo Seeks to Assure Online Privacy in Times of Uncertainty

By Gregory Austin

Internet privacy company DuckDuckGo Inc. has invested in more than 2,000 billboards across the United States and in Europe to inform internet users of their privacy options.

People are becoming increasingly uncomfortable and creeped-out online, Kamyl Bazbaz, the company’s vice president of communications, told Digital Privacy News. They feel restricted to many untrustworthy companies that have overrun the internet.

“Nobody has to choose” between privacy and extensive online access, Bazbaz said. “Privacy online should be simple and accessible to everyone — period.”

The billboards, the cost of which Bazbaz declined to disclose, reflect this sentiment and come amid great unrest.

DuckDuckGo officials planned to increase advertising before COVID-19, Bazbaz told Digital Privacy News, but the pandemic provided an unforeseen opportunity to reach people who might not have been as concerned about privacy before lockdowns, curfews, social-distancing and other limitations.

“Our privacy policy, in a nutshell, is to not collect or share any personal information at all.”

Gabriel Weinberg, CEO.

While growing mistrust of government and law enforcement — spurred by the recent social-justice protests — was not for the billboard campaign, DuckDuckGo understands the reasons people may be interested in privacy, Bazbaz said.

Demonstrators have been targeted by authorities, and COVID-19 contact-tracing is making some members of the general population uncomfortable.

“People are starting to see… that privacy isn’t only for those with something to hide,” he said.

Not Without Controversy

However, DuckDuckGo has been under fire on one privacy front: Android user domain visits were being leaked into the company’s server. The issue has plagued the company since 2018, highlighted by the Hacker News website.

But CEO Gabriel Weinberg steadily has insisted that no personal user information was collected this way, since DuckDuckGo uses encryption and filters that discard IP addresses by design.

Weinberg also has agreed to stop running favicons from their servers in the interest of user transparency. 

In addition, DuckDuckGo was shut down in India for four days last week. The company assured users in a July 1 Twitter post that it had confirmed that the outage was “not due to us.”

“We have contacted the Indian government but have not yet received a response,” a representative told The Verge Saturday. “We are bewildered on why the Indian government would instruct Indian ISPs to block DuckDuckGo, but are optimistic that this will be resolved soon.”

Later Saturday, however, the company tweeted: “We’re seeing our services being broadly restored in India. Thank you for all of your reports, bringing attention to this issue.”

Preferred Contextual Searches

Established in 2008, DuckDuckGo is privately backed by venture capitalists and is based in Paoli, Pa. The company earns its revenue from contextual or “keyword-targeted” advertising.

“This keyword-based advertising is our primary business model,” Weinberg said in a blog post. “When you search on DuckDuckGo, we can show you an ad based on the keywords you type in.

“That’s it. And it works.

“Our privacy policy, in a nutshell, is to not collect or share any personal information at all,” the CEO said. “Every time you search on DuckDuckGo, it is as if you were there for the first time — anonymous.”

The company’s mobile app and browser extensions also work to ensure that phone providers or compatible browsers cannot take control, Bazbaz said.

DuckDuckGo’s app also forces encryptions, blocks trackers, reveals those that have been caught — and gives privacy grades for every website users visit.

The company has been profitable using this model since 2014, Weinberg said, noting that users have a fundamental right to not be surveilled. He also supports state and federal regulations that strengthen consumer-privacy rights.

“You don’t have to be anti-advertising to be anti-surveillance,” Bazbaz told Digital Privacy News.

A Call and a Need

Houston privacy and data-security attorney Sheryl Falk welcomed the company’s business strategy.

“DuckDuckGo doesn’t store or sell data,” Falk told Digital Privacy News. “Their business model is to never monetize my personal information.”

Falk, a partner with the Winston & Strawn law firm, said she was comfortable using DuckDuckGo because of their direct and comprehensive privacy policy.

Falk said two key types of internet users would most benefit from DuckDuckGo: those using it only for searches involving sensitive or personal information and those who are “hyper-aware” of their privacy.

“It’s incumbent on the consumer to determine the limitations of their ability to offer privacy.”

Sheryl Falk, Winston & Strawn, Houston.

Falk referenced Europe after World War II. Then, it was anathema to have your name put on a list, or to be singled out by the government.

“That’s why, historically, they’re so far ahead of us” regarding privacy, she said, “but now, the U.S. seems to be catching up very quickly.”

Benefits by Comparison

Cynthia Cole, an attorney and privacy expert at the Baker Botts firm in Palo Alto, Calif., agreed that DuckDuckGo’s billboard campaign was effective. 

“It … targets people who are becoming more and more concerned about being tracked, even outside of search-engine tracking,” she told Digital Privacy News.

When given the choice, Cole said, individuals do not want their usage histories exploited by companies seeking to profit from that information.

Other parties, including law enforcement and hackers, also could benefit from stored, personal information.

Still, Cole said she was not blind to the potential benefits of traditional search engines. The revenue other search engines gain through targeted, behavioral advertising enriches shareholders and could create jobs and promote economic growth, she added.

Behavioral advertising also benefits online consumers by feeding them relevant ads, links and redirects.

“They’re like a virtual personal shopper and therapist wrapped into one,” Cole told Digital Privacy News. “They know all of your issues and needs before you do.”

While recognizing its benefits, Cole said she did not consider this corporate omnipresence a “good thing.”

Beyond the Pale

Attorney Falk told Digital Privacy News that, despite DuckDuckGo’s impressive guarantees, the company’s services had limitations.

“DuckDuckGo only promises to not collect or store personal data,” she said. “It’s incumbent on the consumer to determine the limitations of their ability to offer privacy.”

Online behavioral advertising is “like a virtual personal shopper and therapist wrapped into one.”

Cynthia Cole, Baker Botts, Palo Alto, Calif.

“Nobody can provide perfect protection, but DuckDuckGo is taking many steps in the right direction.”

Cole cautioned that those concerned with privacy might forget how much of their information is stored within their own device’s hardware.

“The biggest threat to security isn’t some Russian hacker,” she said. “It’s when somebody leaves a laptop on a train.”

Cole advised those concerned about privacy to practice proper “data and security hygiene.”

“It’s important to be aware of what data you’re storing and where,” she told Digital Privacy News. “You must determine if the data you’re carrying is necessary.

“And if it isn’t, you need to dispose of it properly, including storage and deletion according to industry-standard data-security methods.”

Gregory Austin is a writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.

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