In today’s digital age, online privacy has become a major concern. As we spend more of our time on the internet for work, leisure and communication, we leave behind tons of personal data. These digital footprints are collected by search engines, internet service providers, websites and other third parties to profile users and target advertising. This pervasive data harvesting severely compromises individual privacy.
Fortunately, people concerned about their online privacy can take certain precautions. Using private search engines instead of general search engines like Google and coupling them with a VPN service greatly enhances privacy and anonymity. Let’s understand how these tools achieve this.
Private Search Engines
Private search engines are online search services designed from the ground up to protect user privacy. They achieve this by adopting various technical measures:
Anonymity and Data Privacy
Private search engines do not store user IP addresses or personal identifiers. Some services route queries through proxy servers and append random IDs to further obfuscate users. This prevents profiling and tracking based on search queries.
Many private search engines use end-to-end encryption for search queries. The queries are encrypted on the user’s device before transmission and only decrypted on the search engine server. This shields search terms from network surveillance or intermediary attacks.
Open Source Code
Multiple private search engines are entirely open source, allowing transparency into their working. The community can inspect the code to ensure there are no hidden data collection services. Examples of open source private search include Searx and Whoogle.
General search engines often skew search results based on user profiling and paid promotions. Private alternatives provide more neutral results focused on relevance rather than targeting. This reduces filter bubbles during information discovery.
Some notable private search engines include:
Search Encrypt is an open source private search portal based in Germany. It uses fully encrypted queries over HTTPS and expunges server logs frequently. Search Encrypt supports 25 languages and gets results from over 300 sources while accepting anonymous payments.
Searx is a privacy-conscious metasearch engine with an open source codebase. It aggregates results from various services without tracking or profiling. Searx instances can be self-hosted by communities and organizations to serve niche interests.
Swisscows is a Swiss private search engine focused on data security. Searches are encrypted using TLS and routed through proxy servers to mask origins. Swisscows claims to delete all usage logs every 24 hours to prevent surveillance.
A VPN or Virtual Private Network allows internet users to mask their network identity and bypass geo-restrictions. By funneling traffic through an encrypted tunnel to the VPN server, the original IP address is hidden from external entities. VPN services enhance privacy in the following ways:
Hides Browsing Activity
VPNs instantly make online activity anonymous by obscuring the client IP address and its geographical location. Websites cannot profile or selectively restrict users based on the country they are browsing from.
Secure Public Wi-Fi Access
Connecting through public hotspots carries huge security risks as the network traffic is openly visible. Turning on a VPN secures all communication over public Wi-Fi by encasing data under encryption layers.
Authoritarian regimes and institutions often restrict access to certain websites and online services through geo-blocking. VPN tunnels can bypass this to open access to censored content from anywhere in the world.
Popular VPN service providers like NordVPN, Surfshark and ExpressVPN offer state-of-the-art privacy tools and global infrastructure to subscribers at reasonable costs. Let’s examine some notable features:
NordVPN is a market leading VPN service known for strict privacy policies and choice of over 5400 servers in 60 countries. It offers AES-256 encrypted tunnels, kill switch, DNS leak protection and Onion over VPN for anonymous browsing. NordVPN has custom apps for all platforms and allows 6 multi-logins.
Surfshark is a fast rising VPN provider with excellent speeds, unlimited device logins and support for torrenting. It has over 3200 servers in 100+ countries offering features like CleanWeb ad-blocking, private DNS and AES-256 encryption. Surfshark comes with a 30 day refund guarantee for subscriber confidence.
ExpressVPN has a reputation for ultra fast speeds backed by a massive network of 3000+ global VPN servers. It offers split-tunneling for device flexibility, TrustedServer technology to eliminate server disks and 24/7 live chat support. ExpressVPN allows 5 multi-logins and Bitcoin payments while working reliably to unblock Netflix etc.
Combining VPN and Private Search Engines
While private search engines and VPNs individually offer privacy improvements, combining them provides a formidable online privacy solution.
Routing private searches over a VPN connection makes it impossible to identify the user through IP address or location leaks. The search terms themselves are encrypted end-to-end. This creates a perfectly anonymous discovery experience.
VPNs secure communication channels over perilous public networks preventing man-in-the-middle attacks. Queries to private search engines gain additional protection against malicious third-parties.
Zero Trackers & Ads
General search engines and websites rely heavily on cookies, advertisements and usage trackers that compromise privacy. Private search over VPN blocks trackers and ads altogether for non-invasive browsing.
Here is a simple way to deploy this tandem setup:
- Subscribe to a reputed VPN service like those mentioned earlier
- Install the VPN app on your device and connect to a server with required location
- Download and set up a private search engine like Searx as the default on your browser
- Perform internet searches as normal over the VPN link now
There is no denying the massive privacy risks we take by availing internet conveniences with abandon. Thankfully, tools like private search engines and VPNs together provide robust privacy for citizens. They empower people to take control of their online footprint by restricting the information they reveal consciously.
Concerned readers must certainly evaluate their threat models and consider deploying such privacy tools as suitable to create a personal “digital fortress”. Even using one or the other enhances anonymity substantially. As surveillance capitalism erodes personal liberty, we must explore technology alternatives that preserve our basic digital rights. If online privacy matters to you, start with your search engine!