- Don’t Put Personally Identifying Information in Your Search Terms
- Connect To A Different Network for Sensitive Searches
- Don’t Use Your ISP’s Search Engine
- Use a Private Search Engine
- Don’t Login To Your Search Engine or Related Tools
- Block Cookies from Your Search Engine
- Change Your IP Address Often
- Use Web Proxies, VPNs and Tor
1. Don’t Put Personally Identifying Information in Your Search Terms (Easy)
Searching for your name and where you live could give a malicious actor enough information to track you down. If someone is monitoring your network activity and you’re using a search engine without encryption, your search terms could be leaked. Even if you don’t actually search for sensitive information, a lot of search engines track your key strokes on the site, so they could see what you typed it in.
If you actually need to search for your name and address to see what’s out there, try to use a different device, on a different network, and not logged in to your Gmail account.
2. If You Must Do a Sensitive Search, Connect to a Different Network (Easy)
One way to distance your searches from your identity (or the data profile that you search engine has) is to connect to a different network. Rather than using your personal Wi-Fi network, connect to a different network or even use a different device. And once on the different network, make sure you don’t log in to your social media or related accounts or you could link your identity to this new network.
The idea is to distance your personal network’s IP address and your devices’ unique identifiers from your identity. Switching to a different network can help circumvent some of the tracking measures that modern search engines use.
3. Don’t Use Your ISP’s Search Engine (Easy)
If your ISP offers a search engine (Comcast’s Xfinity, for example) you should avoid using it. Not only can your ISP monitor your internet traffic, with a search engine it can get more information about your searching habits to sell to third parties. Comcast uses Xfinity to try to keep users in their data ecosystem to collect as much data as possible. This is why Xfinity offers a search engine, an email service, a streaming service and other tools.
It’s important to diversify the tools you use on the internet so you don’t end up giving one company complete access to all of your data, including search and behavioral data.
4. Use a Private Search Engine (Easy)
Probably the simplest way to search the web privately is to use a private search engine. This lets you search without being tracked or getting followed around with targeted ads. You can take steps to fool the major search engines that don’t have privacy protection built in, but private search engines do this for you. You could use a VPN, a private browser and tracker blockers and a normal search engine, and they could still track you. Tracking has grown much more complex as websites have figured out ways to get around people’s efforts to stop tracking.
Another benefit of private search engines is that they provide more neutral and objective search results. One of the issues with non-private search engines is the tendency to show results that you’re more likely to click on in favor of the highest-quality results. This is referred to as the “filter bubble” effect. It isolates you from the broad spectrum of information and keeps you trapped in a bubble of information that only confirms your beliefs.
Read More: What Are Filter Bubbles?
Recommended Private Search Engine: Search Encrypt
Search Encrypt is a private search engine which offers high level encryption and expiring browsing history. It offers better privacy than other private search engines and is more feature rich than many other alternative search engines.
5. Don’t Login To Your Search Engine or Related Tools (Easy)
Logging in to Google, Bing, or whatever search engine you use just gives your search engine a profile to link your searches to. This let’s them get information about your name, location, email address that is unnecessary to the core functionality of their products. If you use Google as your search engine, Google Drive, Google Photos, Google Hangouts, and Android as your mobile operating system then Google can use each of these touch points to collect your information.
Don’t Login To Your Browser Either
Another issue with searching privately is using Google Chrome as your browser. The latest versions of Chrome prompt users to login to their Google account in the browser for password, payment, and other data storage. This lets Google track all of your browsing data (not just your searches). If you prefer Chrome’s functionality and feel then using Chromium (which is built on the same framework as Google Chrome, without Google features built-in) is a good option for more private browsing. Another browser that privacy experts recommend is Mozilla Firefox. Mozilla is an advocate for privacy and security on the internet, and as such their Firefox browser is widely respected.
6. Block Cookies From Your Search Engine (Intermediate)
Cookies are just one method that search engines use to track users but blocking them can help minimize tracking. By clearing cookies, you make it more difficult for websites to recognize that its you coming back to their site. In your browser’s cookie settings, disable third-party cookies. If you can block at a domain level enter any domains you want to block cookies from, like Google or Facebook.
Read More: How Does Tracking Work?
7. Change Your IP Address Often (Intermediate)
Whenever you are connected to the internet, your ISP gives your device an IP address. Search engines and other websites use IP addresses to determine the approximate location of your device. Depending on your ISP, you may be assigned a dynamic IP address. This means that you are given a different IP address every so often. If you use a work network that has hundreds of devices on a single IP address, this is less of a priority. But if you mostly browse from a home Wi-Fi network and have a “dynamic” IP address, you can turn your modem off and back on regularly to assign a new IP.
Read More: What’s My IP Address? How To Keep It Private
8. Use Web Proxies, VPNs and Tor (Advanced)
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
VPNs mask your IP address by redirecting your network connection through virtual servers in different geographic locations. These make it more difficult for a search engine to track you and figure out your location. With a VPN your IP address will be different depending on the server location. This means that it will appear as if your connection is coming from that location rather than your own. While VPNs are a good way to add some privacy protection to your browsing, a search engine can still figure out where you’re located if you enter location-based search terms (e.g. Restaurants in Los Angeles, Weather in Boston).
Be aware that some VPN services have been found to leak IP addresses, which would eliminate any point of using the VPN to hide your IP address. You should do some quick research before picking a VPN if privacy is your main concern.
Use The Onion Router (Tor)
Tor stands for The Onion Router, which refers to the onion like layers that Tor uses to protect your identity. It works similar to a VPN except it essentially hops from point to point. The main difference between TOR and a VPN is that all of the servers on TOR are volunteer-operated and anonymized while the VPN’s servers may be linked back to the VPN provider.
However, one of the downsides to using Tor is that it is much slower than a VPN. It has additional layers of privacy protection, but that comes at the cost of connection speed. Another issue with TOR is that it has been connected to cyber crime and illegal transactions. The tool itself is reliable and secure, but using TOR may have negative associations for those unaware of its functionality.
Use a Proxy Server
Proxies work in ways similar to VPNs. When you use a proxy, your internet requests pass through the proxy so websites you visit can only see traffic coming from the proxy, not your local network. You can also use proxies to access geo-restricted content. If you want to access Mexican Netflix, you could use a proxy based in Mexico. Proxies, like Tor, are much slower than simply using a VPN because your traffic has to pass through the proxy which then mirrors your traffic to the website and then mirrors it back to your device.
Proxies don’t offer the same level of security as VPNs. This is because proxies don’t use encryption to obscure your web requests and they don’t remove any identifiable markers from your network activity. Although proxies change your visible IP address, they cannot protect your browsing from your ISP or surveillance organizations.
Read More: The Best VPNs for Privacy in 2019
The Best Way To Hide From Your Search Engine Is To Confuse Your Search Engine
The best way to remain anonymous online is to confuse the systems that are trying to track you. If your internet traffic includes both legitimate and falsified searches and website visits, it will be more difficult for your search engine to target you with ads. There are two approaches to keeping your search engine out of your personal life, one is to prevent any tracking at all and the other is to let them track you but purposely include contradictory information.
If you aren’t willing to go to the effort to protect your privacy on the internet, but still want to get rid of the ads that seem to stalk you around the web, you can try to “confuse” your search engine. Truly accomplishing this though could take even more effort than just taking steps to protect your privacy in the first place.