Imagine being able to use your favorite search engine without being used. That's essentially the premise of Disconnect Search, a search app for mobile devices and the web that lets you seek information online without surrendering your privacy.
Disconnect, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup founded by former Google engineer Brian Kennish and consumer-rights attorney Casey Oppenheim, on Monday introduced a faster, more secure version of its Disconnect Search app for Android and a new Web app that works with Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari. An iOS version is in the works.
When you submit a search query to Google, Bing, or Yahoo, the search engine sees what you're looking for, the kind of technology you're using, and, unless you've taken steps to conceal your identity, who you are -- through an account sign-in or a preexisting cookie file. This data is hugely valuable to marketers, as Google's massive market capitalization demonstrates.
To provide a way to search the web while maintaining privacy, some companies like Duck Duck Go have created their own search engines. But Oppenheim, co-CEO of Disconnect, in a phone interview said, "Duck Duck Go is a great product, but a lot of people who care about their privacy have trouble moving away from Google and Bing."
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Disconnect Search acts as a proxy for online searches. Users' search queries travel to Disconnect's servers and are passed on to the chosen search engine, whether that's Google, Bing, Yahoo, or some other search service, without personal information. The search engine will know that someone is searching for "embarrassing pharmaceutical product" and can still serve relevant ads in the search results list it returns, but it will not know who has conducted that search. Disconnect doesn't log keywords, personal information, or IP addresses.
"The thing we've heard routinely from customers is what you search for is just incredibly personal information," said Oppenheim. "The fact that this information is going [to] your search engine, ISP, websites, and potentially to government is something people have a real problem with."
Oppenheim says the point of Disconnect is not to protect people's queries from the NSA or other government agencies. Rather it's that the company has implemented -- with the help of current CTO and former NSA engineer Patrick Jackson -- the latest versions of security enhancing technology such as Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) to keep users' search histories as private as possible. The Disconnect Search update also brings backend changes that improve speed roughly twofold.
Disconnect could, of course, like any other technology company with a US presence, be served with a National Security Letter that requires it to secretly track the future activity of a specific user. But its technology and its practice of not logging information at least would prevent past activity from being revealed. Disconnect Search is not a broad anonymity tool like Tor; it's a way to provide users with greater personal privacy than they get from commercial search engines.
Disconnect Search has been selected as the default search provider on the Blackphone, a privacy-focused smartphone by SGP Technologies, which is a joint venture with Silent Circle and Geeksphone.
Traditionally, privacy has been a tough sell. There's no easy way to put a price on privacy so it's often hard to know whether privacy products are worth paying for. Disconnect Search is offered as pay-what-you-want software. So it's free if you don't wish to pay, but according to Oppenheim, a surprising number of the company's 1.5 million users are paying. "We've been monetizing a lot better than we expected with this model," he said.
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