Private.sh Privacy Search Engine first look

Private.sh is a new search engine that was officially unveiled in November 2019. The search engine is maintained by Private Internet Access, a provider of VPN solutions and other tools, and Gigablast, a company that maintains an index of Internet pages.

Private.sh promises better privacy than other search solutions by encrypting searches on the user’s system and by using secure proxies to hide user IP addresses.

private sh search engine

The search term is encrypted automatically when users type search terms into the search field on the private.sh website and hit the search button. The request is then tunneled through a secure proxy maintained by Private Internet Access and submitted to Gigablast.

There, it is processed, encrypted using a temporary key, and send back the same way it came.

The announcement of the new service on the Private Internet Access website provides additional information on how this works:

When you enter a search term into Private.sh, the search term gets encrypted on the client side (on your computer or device) using GigaBlast’s public key, which only they can decrypt. In effect, this ensures that Private.sh never sees the search term.

After the search term is encrypted, it is passed to the GigaBlast search engine through a Private.sh proxy so GigaBlast doesn’t see your IP address, browser fingerprints, or anything that would allow for your privacy to be broken or a user profile to be created. This means that neither Private.sh or GigaBlast is able to build a user profile on you or store your search history.

Finally, the search results are encrypted by GigaBlast using your temporary public key and are returned to you through the Private.sh proxy. The results then get decrypted and rendered locally on your device using Javascript with a temporary private key that only exists on your device. This client-side keypair is changed for every search request.

The search engine itself provides a search field on the start page and options to filter by Web/News or by country. Not all countries are supported but several dozens are including the United States and other English speaking countries, France, Germany or Spain. Most Asian countries don’t seem to be supported though.

Results were returned quickly during tests regardless of query or filter.

private sh search results

The search engine shows a text banner for Private Internet Access in a sidebar but has no other ads or unwanted content. A quick check of the network connections shows that it only connects to its own domain plus the subdomain search.private.sh.

Results are quite okay considering that the company that operates the search engine and the index does not have the resources at its disposal that Google or Microsoft have.

Private.sh Browser Extensions

Today, browser extensions for Google Chrome (and other Chromium-based web browsers) and Firefox were released. These are available on the official add-on stores and as standalone versions that users may download from the site directly.

The extensions add another layer of security to the search experience according to the announcement:

Using Private.sh’s extension adds an additional layer of security to your Private Search experience. When visiting our website, the code used to encrypt your search term comes from the website even though it executes client side in your browser through Javascript. When using the Private.sh Google Chrome Extension or Firefox Add-On, all the code not only runs locally on your machine. Once the Private.sh extension code is on your machine, it is all but impossible to tamper with unless an attacker has read/write access to your computer.

Closing Words

Private.sh makes a good first impression. The search engine loads quickly, results are displayed fast thanks to the bare-bones nature of the search results page’s design, and results appear to be quite good as well (based on limited testing though). The promise that searches and user IPs are protected needs to be verified by a third-party though.

The search engine supports a limited number of countries and languages, and search options. It lacks media searching for one, and there are not any options to filter search results by time or extend the protection the proxy offers by letting users open results using it (like Startpage does).

All in all, not a bad start and certainly something that privacy-conscious users may want to keep an eye on.

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Startpage launches News tab to help users escape filter bubbles

Search engine Startpage launched its new News offering on November 21, 2019. The new feature promises to deliver news to users that is not curated or personalized. In other words: every user who looks up the same term at the same time gets the same news returned when using Startpage News.

Note: Startpage ownership changed recently and that caused some controversy. Check out our coverage of the event here and here.

Google, Facebook, and other services that provide you with news may do so based on the information that they have accumulated about you. A very basic example would deliver news to you based on your location in the world. If you are from Australia, chance is high that you would like your news to cover Australia more than other parts of the world.

Curation or personalization goes beyond that simple example though. If you read conservative, liberal, or left-leaning media more than others, chance is that services may prioritize sources that fall into those categories over others that don’t. The same may be true in other areas, e.g. science, religion, sports, or other political areas.

The filter bubble may fortify believes and positions and while that is not bad all the time, it may mean that the information is biased to a certain degree.

Startpage users who run a search on the site may notice the new News tab on the results page. A click on News displays only news source as results.

startpage news

The system itself works similar to Google News and other news providers: type a search term to get a list of recent articles published by newspapers and online sites.

Startpage guarantees that users are not “targeted with select stories and opinions” when the News feature is used. The search engine removes “all personally identifiable information” from search queries before passing the search term to “the search engine” and returning “the exact same results that anyone else in the world would receive”.

Startpage does not mention the service that it uses to display news to users. I asked a company representative about it and was told that News is pulled from Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Startpage displays a thumbnail, title, a short description, the source, and the time the news was published on the results page. A click on the news title opens the site the news was published on in new tab in the browser.

Startpage implemented its anonymous view mode on the News page so that users of the service may open the article using a proxy. Anonymous view hides the user’s IP address from the publication.

Closing words

Startpage expands its service and the inclusion of news is certainly a step in the right direction, especially since the service promises that users won’t be put in a filter bubble and the added ability to open news in anonymous mode.

Now you: do you use search engines to look up news?

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Startpage replies to questions about ownership change

Startpage, a popular privacy focused search engine that operates out of the Netherlands, published a new FAQ on its websites in which several answers are provided regarding the change of ownership that took place recently.

Privacy One Group Ltd acquired a stake in the company which is owned by the advertising company System1. System1 states that it uses “technology to make advertising better and safer, while respecting consumer privacy”.

The change raised fears and questions, especially since Startpage or System1/Privacy One Group Ltd provided little information about specifics off the deal. We asked important questions here. and others have done the same.

startpage system1 privacy one group

Startpage published an article on its site recently that attempts to answer some of these questions and reassure users of the service that the deal has no privacy implications.

Here are the main revelations of the article:

  • Startpage remains headquartered in the Netherlands/EU and the Startpage founders will continue to run the company.
  • Startpage founders have “control over all Startpage privacy implementations”. The company notes that “the Startpage founders may unilaterally reject any potential technical change that could negatively affect user privacy” and that “notice must be given to end users for any privacy-related change”.
  • Startpage user IP addresses are not shared “with any party”.
  • The way advertisement is served has not changed.
  • System1 owns a majority stake in Startpage.
  • System1’s “businesses generally do not involve building or maintaining user profiles and little user information is processed or stored within System1”.
  • Privacy One Group Limited is a Delaware registered company.

To summarize: Startpage states hat nothing has changed in regards to how the service operates in regards to user privacy.

The publication leads to another question: why has System1 / Privacy One Group Limited made an investment in Startpage? What is the motivation behind it?

Startpage attempts to answer that question as well by providing a statement of the Chairman Michael Blend and the CEO Ian Weingarten of System1.

In it, the company representatives state that the investment was made ” because we believe Startpage serves a critical role in maintaining consumer privacy, and we hope our resources can help Startpage bring privacy to millions of new users around the world”.

Closing Words

The whole situation could have been avoided if Startpage would have been transparent about the deal. The publication reveals critical information about the deal and should reassure some users. Others may require additional information or clarification, e.g. whether data is shared with Privacy One Group Limited or System1.

Now You: What is your take on the development?

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Startpage Search owner changes raise serious questions

Startpage announced on September 28, 2019 on the official Startpage blog that Privacy One Group Ltd has made an investment in Startpage.com. The announcement revealed that the relationship between the two groups started in January 2019 and that Startpage will continue to deliver “quality, unbiased search results while respecting online privacy and never storing consumer data” going forward.

The Internet has little information about Privacy One Group Ltd.  A Limited companies search returns no hits and most information that is available online has been published after the Startpage announcement.

startpage privacy one group

Startpage revealed in the press release that Privacy One Group Ltd is owned by System1; that fact and the lack of information surrounding Privacy One Group Ltd caused uncertainty and confusion.

A search for System1 returns more information. The company operates out of London and it becomes clear quickly that it is an advertising company.

At System1 we use behavioural and marketing science to help brands and marketers achieve profitable growth with zero waste. Our systems produce outcomes, not just insights, and our solutions are based in the fast and easy decisions people make every day.

To summarize: an advertising company (System1) has a “separate operating unit” that focuses on user privacy (Privacy One Group) that acquired a stake (how much) of the privacy focused search engine Startpage.

It is clear that such a scenario would raise questions. What is Privacy One Group Ltd all about? How much control do the original owners of Startpage still have over the company and the decision making processes? Does System1 benefit in any way?

These questions have not been answered.

Privacytools.io delisted Startpage after trying to get answers; this means that the service no longer recommends Startpage. PrivacyTools notes in the announcement that it has no evidence of Startpage violating its privacy policies and that the decision was based on a number of unanswered questions and Startpage’s evasive behavior in regards to these questions.

In particular, PrivacyTools wants to know:

  • The percentage of stakes that System1 / Privacy One Group Ltd acquired from Surfboard Holding B.V.
  • The current percentage of ownership by System1.
  • Information about Privacy One Group Ltd including its corporate structure, country of registration and operation.
  • Data flow diagrams to indicate which data flows to outside organizations.

Closing Words

I used Startpage for years and have recommended it regularly here on this site. While there is zero evidence of privacy policy violations or unethical behavior, e.g. providing System1 with data from searches, it is concerning that Startpage did not address the questions in a clear manner.

Based on the lack of information, and that alone, I will not recommend Startpage Search. I will start using DuckDuckGo, Searx and Qwant for now.

Now You: What is your take on all of this?

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MasterSeeker is a freeware desktop search application for Windows

We have seen plenty of desktop search applications in the past. There’s Everything, which is the favorite of many, UltraSearch or VX Search among other options.

If you’re looking for something simpler, MasterSeeker may be worth a closer look.

MasterSeeker is a freeware desktop search application for Windows

The program caches your data when you run it the first time. The indexing process was really fast and it impressed me because I have 3 drives plugged into this laptop. Once your drives have been indexed you will see the interface of the program that is is reminiscent of Windows Explorer’s UI. The search bar on the top is where you will enter the keyword to search for files and the large pane below is where the search results are displayed.

Just type in the name of the file that you’re looking for and the results appear instantly; real-time in an as-you-type basis. Speaking of which, changes you make to your data are indexed (updated) in real-time as well including new files that you create, download, or file edits or deletes.  MasterSeeker supports NTFS, FAT, FAT32 and exFAT file systems.

Clicking on the arrow icon in the search box let’s you set the program to ignore case and use Regex mode (for regular expressions). The directory bar can be used to limit the search to one folder (or drive). This bar has a similar arrow icon which has an extra option to include/exclude sub folders from the search process.

The File Size box limits search results to files that have a size close to the selected file size.

The checkboxes toward the right of the file size box can be toggled to search for files and folders. The eraser button can be used to reset all the search fields and you can manually run the caching process by using F5 or the refresh button. Though it is fully functional as an application that does not need to be installed, you can optionally set it to run at Windows start-up. MasterSeeker can be set to minimized to the system tray from the settings.

General usage

You can use the Left Control + Tilde (~ key) hotkey combo to bring MasterSeeker into view. Once you perform a search you can view the name of the each file, its directory path and size in the results pane.

You can sort the results by name, size, folder path. Double clicking on a file in the list will open it in its default handler program. Right-click on any file to open the containing folder, or to copy the file itself, copy the filename, the full path where it is located, or to view the properties.

The application supports multi select; select multiple items to view the combined size on disk, to open their locations, or launch them. You can click in the bottom left corner to view the index bar. This lists all drives on the computer and indicates whether they have been cached or not.

Warning: The context menu has a “delete permanently” option, use it with caution.

The application hasn’t been updated for quite a while, but still works flawlessly on the latest version of Windows 10. MasterSeeker requires .NET Framework 2.0 to run.

Closing Words

Though I use “Everything” on my computer, I have to admit MasterSeeker is pretty good even though it is a bit greedy in the memory department. The search software may still have its uses but most users would probably pick Everything or another search program instead considering that MasterSeeker seems to have been abandoned.

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DuckDuckGo adds Indian servers and new options

The privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo announced the launch of new features and servers recently on the company’s Spread Privacy blog. The company added servers in India to better serve Indian users, a new “past year” data range filter, and dark theme refinements to the desktop version of the service.

The search engine supported time-based filters for a long time but the options were limited to a maximum length of one month up until now.

DuckDuckGo users can activate the “Any Time” filter on search results page to select a date range filter. The new “past year” option is now available; it displays results of the past year only and extends the maximum length to 12 months.

duckduckgo past year filter search

DuckDuckGo notes that the “past year” data filter was one of the most requested features of users of the service. The filter lacks options to set custom date ranges for results; Google Search and Bing support the filter while most third-party search engines, including Startpage, don’t.

The company notes that the implementation was not straightforward as it needed to make sure that the delivered results would still be anonymous.

It wasn’t straightforward for us to do because we work with a variety of different partners to produce the anonymous search results you see on DuckDuckGo. With their help, we were finally able make it happen!

DuckDuckGo is aware that a custom date range is popular as well. It stated that it has no immediate plans to add it but that it may be added in the future.

The update brings dark theme refinements next to that. You can activate the dark theme with a click on Settings and the selection of the dark theme icon in the interface that opens.

duckduckgo dark theme

Dark and light themes are not the only themes that are supported by the service. If you open the Theme Settings using the Hamburger menu at the top you will find four more themes listed there including a high contrast, gray, and terminal theme.

DuckDuckGo added “a lot of servers” to the Indian subcontinent to improve the performance of the service for Indian users (and users in that region). The connection speed was not the best according to the company and the addition of new servers should improve the experience for users significantly.

Now You: what is your favorite search engine, and why?

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Search Engine add-ons to be removed from addons.mozilla.org

Firefox

For the last eleven years, Firefox Search Engine add-ons have been powered by OpenSearch. With the recent implementation of the search overrides API, a WebExtensions API that offers users more controls for opting into changes, Mozilla intends to deprecate OpenSearch and eventually remove it from Firefox. Search Engine add-ons will be removed from AMO on December 5, 2019.

For Search Engine add-ons to continue working, they must be converted to an extension using the WebExtensions API by December 3, 2019. For more information, please see the following documents on MDN web docs:

Unfortunately, it is not possible to automatically migrate users of Search Engine add-ons to their replacement extensions. If you are the developer of a Search Engine add-on, we recommend linking to your new extension’s listing page from your search add-on’s listing page so your users know where to install the update.

If you have any questions, please ask them in our community forum.

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File Search Utility is a new desktop search tool

File Search Utility is a new desktop search program for Windows, Mac and Linux devices to find files quickly based on certain search parameters.

We checked out the Windows version of the application for the test but the Linux and Mac versions should work equally well.

Windows users have no shortage when it comes to search tools for the desktop. The built-in Windows search is not really that adequate for most searches as it is rather slow quite cumbersome to use.

Tools like Everything, WizFile, VX Search or Scan FS are usually a lot faster and provide better functionality on top of that. File Search Utility is no exception to that even though its not as fast as Everything or WizFile when it comes to returning results.

File Search Utility

filesearch

Windows users can run the executable file right away as the program does not need to be installed. The source code of the program is provided as well on GitHub for users interested in it.

File Search Utility starts quickly and displays all search options in the interface right away. You may pick a folder or drive to search at the top, specify one or multiple file names, and include words or phrases that the files need to contain for them to be returned.

The file name field accepts full file names and wildcards. A search for *.doc would return all files with the .doc extension stored under the selected path while ?.jpg all JPG files with a single character as the name. Use a comma to separate filenames from each other.

File Search Utility searches in subfolders automatically but you may disable that if you want the root folder searched only.

Three additional search options are provided:

  • Make the search case sensitive.
  • Specify a date range, e.g. today or the past week.
  • Specify size requirements, e.g. less than 1 Megabyte or more than 1 Gigabyte.

Results are displayed in the lower part of the interface. You may need to adjust the size of the window accordingly to display full file name, path, size and modification information.

The program separates results by folder; a double-click on a path or file opens the folder; it would have been better in my opinion if a double-click on the file would launch it directly.

You may right-click to copy the path or the file name to the Clipboard. Note that there is no option to export the data or display it in any other way. Options to display files by filename or other parameters would be handy in some situations.

Closing Words

File Search Utility is a handy desktop search tool that worked well during tests. The initial version has a few usability issues concerning the results listing for the most part and the inability to search the entire computer.

The search options to limit results by size, modification time or content are useful on the other hand.

Now You: which search tool do you use on your systems?

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Not everyone likes the new Google Images preview format

More and more users of Google Images, the image search engine operated by Google, are switched over to a new display format and design.

Google Images is a popular search engine to find photos and other imagery. The company changed Google Images significantly several times in recent time. It removed the View Image button in 2018 and revealed in 2019 that it would introduce what it called shoppable ads to the image search service.

Chrome and Firefox users could install View Image extensions to bring back the functionality or switch to a search engine like Startpage that still featured the functionality.

While it is almost certain that browser extensions or scripts will become available to restore the old Google Images layout, none seem to be available at the time of writing.

The core change moves the preview of the selected image search result from a centered preview area to the right side.

google images right side preview

The image preview size remains the size for the majority of images and it is possible to browse other images returned as results while the preview window is open. Users may also notice that the preview area is fixed which means that less “jumping” takes place when new results are selected from the list of search results.

One point of criticism is that the new layout limits the size of the preview. While that is not a problem for small images, it is one for larger images, e.g. 1080p images or 4K photos. The preview area has a fixed size and while it changes based on the size of the browser window, it is not possible to change the search results to preview area ratio on Google Images.

Related images displayed underneath the preview are larger than before, but fewer are displayed next to each other on the screen.

Closing Words

I don’t use Google Images anymore as I prefer the image search of the Startpage search engine and Bing search engine. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of Bing’s preview feature as it displays the selected image in an overlay. I do like Bing’s video search functionality better than that of YouTube, but that is another story entirely.

Now You: what is your take on the new Google Images preview layout?

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Google: Search engines should pay for recommendation on Android

Android devices operated in the European Union will soon display a selection of search engines to users. Three search engines, next to Google Search, which is the default on most Android devices, will be presented to the user of the device; third-party earch engines need to fill out an application form and may need to pay Google for the inclusion.

Google was ordered to pay a record fine of 4.3 Billion Euro because of anti-competitive practices surrounding the company’s search engine Google Search and other Google applications on Android.

google-android search engine choice

The upcoming search engine selection screen displays three alternative search engines to Android users from the European Union. Most Android devices come with Google Search as the default search engine. Android users can install different search engines on their devices but 95% of all searches use Google Search as the search engine on Android according to the EU. The EU regulators believe that the dominance of Google Search can be attributed partially to Google making deals with manufacturers to make Google Search and apps the default on Android.

Google plans to display the choice screen during initial setup of the device. Users need to select one of the listed search engines during setup to proceed. The selected provider will be set as the search provider in the search box on the home screen, in Chrome as the default search engine, and the search app of the selected provider will be installed as well.

The effect of a user selecting a search provider from the choice screen will be to (i) set the search provider in a home screen search box to the selected provider, (ii) set the default search provider in Chrome (if installed) to the selected provider, and (iii) install the search app of the selected provider (if not already installed).

Google plans to start showing the choice screen in early 2020.

Search providers need to meet certain requirements to be eligible for inclusion. The requirements are listed on this support page on the Android website. Criteria include that a localized version is provided, that the search provider has a search app that is available on Google Play, that it is a general search provider and not a specialized one, and that the search provider provides Google will the necessary technical assets.

Google rolled out choice screens on Google Play in April 2019 to users from the European Union. The choice screens presented a list of additional search providers and mobile browsers to users. These were displayed without extra charge to search engine companies or browser makers.

Pay for inclusion

Search providers who want to be included need to fill out an application form and Google wants to auction off spots in the recommendations listing to the highest bidder for each country. Search providers need to set a price that they are willing to pay to Google each time a user selects their search engine from the choice screen. Google set a minimum price which it has not disclosed and will keep bids by search engines private.

The three highest bidders that exceed the minimum will be presented to users in random order next to Google Search.

Google will pick search engines randomly from the list of providers that applied if fewer than three search engines bid or if bids remain under the limit.

“An auction is a fair and objective method to determine which search providers are included in the choice screen.” according to Google. Several search engine companies and operators have criticized Google for the auction system. Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo criticized the auction system in a tweet on Twitter:

A pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots means consumers won’t get all the choices they deserve, and Google will profit at the expense of the competition.

Looking Back

In 2009, Microsoft faced a similar situation in the European Union. Internet Explorer was the dominating browser thanks to its inclusion in the Windows operating system. Microsoft agreed to display a browser ballot screen to users from the European Union. The screen listed up to twelve different browsers to users during setup. Browsers were selected based on popularity and displayed in random order; companies did not have to pay for inclusion.

Opera Software was one of the companies that benefited from the inclusion.The company revealed that downloads of its Opera web browser tripled after the browser ballot screen started to show up in the EU.

Closing Words

The auction system favors companies with deep pockets; while it is certainly possible that search engine providers fill out the application form without putting a bid in, it seems likely that search engine choice won’t be based on popularity but on financial resources. Search engines like Startpage or DuckDuckGo cannot compete financially with multi-billion Dollar companies such as Microsoft and its Bing search engine or Yahoo, and it is quite plausible that Bing or Yahoo will dominate the listings in the EU as a consequence.

A fair system would give users more choice, and suggest the most popular search engines in each region to the user. A “more” option could also be implemented to provide users with another list of potential search engines.

Now You: What is your take on the system?

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