East Cobb native Gabriel Weinberg says he’s experienced a 69 percent spike in direct queries per day by his company, DuckDuckGo, since the recent National Security Agency surveillance controversy.
Special to the MDJ
MARIETTA — Search anonymously. Find instantly.
That’s the slogan of DuckDuckGo, an online search engine founded by east Cobb native Gabriel Weinberg that doesn’t track its users or tailor results based on search history like major-market competitors Google, Yahoo and Bing.
But is anonymity possible these days, in the wake of recent revelations about the sweeping data-gathering program of the federal government’s National Security Agency?
Weinberg says yes, citing a 69 percent boom in his Pennsylvania-based company’s direct queries per day since June 6, the day former security analyst Edward Snowden told the world about his former employer’s seemingly unrestrained surveillance of Americans’ cellphone calls and Internet data.
“We kind of always knew people were not into being tracked, but what they didn’t know was that there are private alternatives that can offer real privacy,” Weinberg said Wednesday, a day after he appeared on CNBC’s Closing Bell saying his search engine saw a 33 percent increase in Web traffic since the story broke.
The search engine makes no bones about its opposition to competitor Google’s tracking practices. In one of the links on its homepage, it uses a search for “herpes” in its explanation for how the Internet giant tracks every move of users and allows other sites access to this personal information based on search terms.
Basically, a search term used in many search engines is sent to whatever site the user clicks on, along with browser and computer information that can be used to identify the person. From there, third-party ads can gain access to this information to build profiles about specific users who then receive targeted ads that follow them all over the Internet.
DuckDuckGo doesn’t store any of this information and therefore can’t send it off to other sites, Weinberg said. By not saving user information, it also avoids what’s called the “filter bubble,” wherein users have the results of their searches filtered based on their prior searches.
Critics like Weinberg have argued other search engines limit exposure to opposing information by tailoring results to each user based on past searches. On DuckDuckGo, every user gets the same results for the same query.
Weinberg, who graduated from the Walker School before heading to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began his career in start-up tech companies right out of college.
The 33-year-old’s former company was acquired in 2006. Moving forward, he decided he wanted to do something bigger.
‘No reason to track people’
“I saw a path to a better search engine,” he said. “Instant answers — our initial vision was around that and reducing spam.”
After the search engine launched, he said he began getting questions about privacy.
“I went to investigate myself and found out it was pretty creepy what the system could find out about you,” he said.
If you click on the home page logo, which looks like a recording camera lens over the brand’s signature duck, it takes you to stopwatching us.us, a site that urges readers to contact Congress to end the NSA’s monitoring program.
With no investors to answer to, Weinberg decided to not track any of the site’s user information beginning in 2009. And he doesn’t have plans to change.
“A lot of these things we started years ago,” he said. “It’s totally infused in our product and culture.”
The only similarity DuckDuckGo shares with other search engines is how it makes money — it shows ads based on key words.
“It’s keyword-based, not people-based,” Weinberg said. “There’s no reason to track people based on Web search.”
DuckDuckGo has about 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees, Weinberg said. Though his company presently only focuses on Web search, he sees the trend of Web users looking for more online tools that don’t harvest personal information as one that will continue.
“I think if there was a viable private email alternative, I think people will be seeking it out now. That is certainly a big one,” he said.