Is DuckDuckGo as Private as It Claims? Turns Out, Not So Much.
The privacy browser DuckDuckGo, which claims to keep users safe from hidden third party trackers, has actually been found to be tracking users through Microsoft platforms.
Privacy is relative when it comes to browsing the web, and it's no secret that — to a certain extent — users are always being tracked to some degree. Tracking initiatives are almost entirely non-malicious and care more about your search results in regard to what you buy rather than who you are. Still, it can be unsettling.
Enter: DuckDuckGo. Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo set out to offer a safer, more private search engine that protects users' searches from being tracked and used for ad-targeting. "Tired of being tracked online?" the company website asks. "We can help."
And the truth is that they can, but with an asterisk.
How is DuckDuckGo different from Google search?
The two browsers are shockingly similar, and to the naked eye, DuckDuckGo search results and Google search look nearly identical. The key difference is that DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or user data, allowing users to browse the web somewhat anonymously. Google, on the other hand, does store certain information, which leads to targeted ads and detailed search history, factors that each user has their own comfort level with in regard to their privacy online.
How private is DuckDuckGo?
DuckDuckGo claims to never collect, store or share personal user information, and that the browser allows for a more privacy-focused internet experience void of a third party tracker.
However, it turns out, you really can't have it all.
Through a meticulous investigation, researcher Zach Edwards discovered a crucial gap in DuckDuckGo's claim of maximum privacy. When examining the browser's agreement with Microsoft, he found that while platforms like Google Chrome and Facebook are blocked from tracking, DuckDuckGo allows trackers through Microsoft owned properties like LinkedIn and Bing. Most simply: DuckDuckGo partners with Microsoft and, as a result, "ad clicks are managed by Microsoft's ad network."
Edwards then took to Twitter to share his findings.
"I tested the DuckDuckGo so-called private browser for both iOS and Android, yet *neither version* blocked data transfers to Microsoft's Linkedin + Bing ads while viewing Facebook's workplace[.]com homepage," he writes in a thread.
The discovery prompted concern in users, particularly those who value a truly private browsing experience.
How bad is it?
In truth: not so bad. The claim that DuckDuckGo doesn't store user data or build a profile based on search results still holds true. However, in the context of Microsoft-owned platforms, your data might still be up for grabs or vulnerable to ad targeting.
Since the discovery, DuckDuckGo has been transparent about the involvement, and has made promises to increase privacy protection from Microsoft trackers.
"For non-search tracker blocking (e.x. in our browser), we block most third-party trackers," said DuckDuckGo CEO and founder Gabriel Weinberg. "Unfortunately our Microsoft search syndication agreement prevents us from doing more to Microsoft-owned properties. However, we have been continually pushing and expect to be doing more soon."
In an additional statement, Weinberg reiterated that DuckDuckGo never promised "100% privacy protection," as that's not possible for various reasons. "Taking a step back, I know our product is not perfect and will never be," Weinberg wrote in a Reddit statement. "Nothing can provide 100% protection. And we face many constraints: platform constraints (we can't offer all protections on every platform do to limited APIs or other restrictions), limited contractual constraints (like in this case), breakage constraints (blocking some things totally breaks web experiences), and of course the evolving tracking arms race that we constantly work to keep ahead of. That's why we have always been extremely careful to never promise anonymity when browsing outside our search engine, because that frankly isn't possible. We're also working on updates to our app store descriptions to make this more clear. Holistically though I believe what we offer is the best thing out there for mainstream users who want simple privacy protection without breaking things, and that is our product vision."
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