Information Privacy: search engines & filter bubbles

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched…online?


Image by Kit. Link to CC license here.

Ads crop up in search results and even on various webpages that seem to speak directly to you: the shoes you thought about buying, the resort vacation you almost took, and the political organization you donated money to are all there.

Your search engine auto-completes your search query based on previous searches. Your search results miraculously speak to your specific interests.  Your search engine knows where you are in the world…

Information or data privacy has become an increasingly hot topic. Following the revelations of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, more and more individuals, companies, and countries are paying close attention to what it means to maintain privacy in a digital world.

While some tactics may not be as effective as others…

privacy comic

From xkcd.

There are people working to develop tools such as ‘anonymous search engines’ which do not track or share your data. Two such search engines featured on every tech list are: DuckDuckGo and StartPage .


DuckDuckGo’s privacy policy is simply: “we don’t collect or share personal information”.  However, their privacy webpage offers an abundance of useful information for those wanting to learn more about internet search engines.


StartPage brings you Google’s search results for a particular query, but does so with privacy protection features to let you browse safely and anonymously.

Not only are these search engines concerned with protecting your privacy, they’re also concerned with a phenomenon known as the ‘filter bubble’.

filter bubble image

Image posted by Gisela. CC license linked here.

Credited to Eli Pariser, founder of and board member at, the ‘filter bubble’ refers to the way in which social media and search engines only show users what they think they will be interested in. This can create a particularly hairy situation in which the users of these sites only see information they already agree with, and are thus exposed less and less to different and challenging content. It’s best explained from the man himself, so below is the 9 minute TED talk in which Eli Pariser succinctly describes this concept and its potential dangers:


Of course, there are two sides to every story.  Google’s privacy policy—linked here—explains in depth what data they collect, how, and why.

Likely, most of us will use a combination of search engines and strategies depending on our needs and preferences.

Whatever side of the debate you fall on, information privacy will continue to show up in news stories, be debated by government officials, appear in court cases, and affect you. It’s something worth becoming familiar with, and you may find some of these additional resources helpful:

  • World Privacy Forum — a non-profit research group “dedicated to reimagining privacy in a digital era”
  • — The Electronic Privacy Information Center. Another non-profit research center promoting the “Public Voice in decisions concerning the future of the Internet”
  • — A companion site to EPIC offering “daily updates on privacy stories in the news”

2 thoughts on “Information Privacy: search engines & filter bubbles

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