Take Back Your Digital Privacy (and Help Save Democracy)

A guest submission by Lian Fouse, class of 2023.

Do you feel uncomfortable seeing ads for things that you have looked at online when they show up in a completely unrelated search? Does it bother you that your search data is recorded, compiled into a profile, and sold to the highest bidder? You should be aware that your online data is part of a growing surveillance economy that challenges more than just your privacy.

Surveillance-based advertising that tracks and profiles consumers is the dominant business model online today. A November 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of people surveyed felt that almost everything they do online is tracked by advertisers, technology firms, or others.  More importantly, 81% said that the potential risks from this type of tracking outweigh the benefits.

Some advocacy groups have proposed a ban on surveillance-based advertising. A recent report by the Norwegian Consumer Council argues that the damage done by surveillance-based advertising goes well beyond the clear privacy violations involved. The report contends that surveillance-based advertising facilitates systemic manipulation and discrimination, poses serious national security risks, and raises many other serious concerns. Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of personal Facebook data in the 2016 U.S. presidential election demonstrated the potential threat to democracy that mass data profiling holds.

Fortunately, new companies have emerged to challenge the stranglehold that search behemoth Google has over the internet.  Earlier this year Wired magazine profiled DuckDuckGo, an internet company taking advantage of the growing anger toward Google’s business model. DuckDuckGo also makes money by selling ads related to your search results, but the ads are based only on the context of the individual search you have entered. The DuckDuckGo search engine does not assign you an identifier or track your search history. DuckDuckGo also offers a browser extension that provides tracker prevention superior to the Safari and Firefox browsers. Both of those browsers allow websites to load trackers before restricting the data that those trackers can collect. This allows the trackers to continue to gather specific data about the user, such as their IP address. 

Like many people, initially, I found it hard to believe that there are real options to having my private data harvested. I have been using the DuckDuckGo search engine and extension for Google Chrome for about a year. I have conducted a number of side-by-side search comparisons between Google and DuckDuckGo. While the search results are not exactly the same, nothing I consider important is ever missing in the DuckDuckGo results. I have also experimented with Brave, another excellent option for protecting your online privacy. Brave’s browser is much fancier and blocks ads, trackers, cookies, and fingerprinting, all by default. Both DuckDuckGo and Brave provide privacy browser options for mobile devices. Give these Google alternatives a try before surrendering your digital diary. I feel better knowing that Google is not able to track my online searches and hope others will support alternatives to the surveillance economy.