The Philadelphia-area company promises that it won’t sell, or even store, its users’ search histories or other private information. While the service is supported by ads, they’re linked only to the keywords in individual searches, not to prior searches on the site or behavior elsewhere on the web.
But once users go from the search page to other online content, they’re still exposed to whatever monitoring mechanisms those other sites may include, including code from the ubiquitous tracking networks that cause targeted ads to creepily follow users across the internet.
“When you click beyond on the search results to other sites, you’re subject to privacy policies there,” says DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg.
That’s why, to extend privacy protections beyond its own site, DuckDuckGo is rolling out a browser extension—available for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari as of Tuesday—and smartphone apps designed to filter out tracking code, automatically direct users to encrypted HTTPS versions of sites, and provide privacy ratings for websites. Naturally, users will also be able to search DuckDuckGo from within the extension.
DuckDuckGo is working with the Terms of Service Didn’t Read project, which analyzes privacy policies and other terms of service, to incorporate its data. The company says it plans to find ways to help TOSDR rate more websites. “It’s been a very tedious process because the documents are very long—they’re very complicated,” Weinberg says.
But since TOSDR is independently run, it may help limit criticism if DuckDuckGo, which currently has an “A” grade, continually outscores its less privacy-centric rivals.
Simply blocking tracking operations should make internet connections speedier as well as more private, since tracking code and data can account for a substantial portion of the bandwidth consumed by many popular sites, Weinberg says. The extension won’t filter or block all ad code, though it can be used in conjunction with an adblocker if users wish.
“Adblockers are mostly blocking ads, and don’t always block all the hidden trackers going on,” he says. “Our extension is blocking all the hidden trackers but is not blocking all the ads.”
Ideally, in Weinberg’s view, the tool and its prominent letter grades could put pressure on other web businesses to find models that don’t rely on aggressive user tracking. (Weinberg says basic keyword advertising has been enough to keep DuckDuckGo search profitable since 2014).
Future versions of the app and extension might include additional privacy features as the need arises. “There definitely is a bit of an arms race component to privacy protection and tracker blocking,” says Weinberg, pointing at recently arisen online issues like cryptocurrency-mining malware.
The company’s goal is essentially to provide a one-app privacy solution, including a bundle of features that don’t require a lot of user configuration to be able to use the internet normally. For that reason, the extension and apps don’t currently include a VPN or a connection to the Tor private routing network, tools that some power users employ to further boost their anonymity online. Those often need to be turned off to access particular sites and services, so they’re not a good fit for the current extension, though Weinberg says DuckDuckGo plans to do more R&D in the future that could bring such features into the fold.
“What we’re trying to do is pack all the essentials that you need into one package,” he says.