Is privacy dead?

Is privacy dead?

If you take privacy seriously, you have probably heard of DuckDuckGo (DDG), the browser and search engine promising complete privacy so you can rest assured when you surf online. But have you heard of the tracking controversy that hit the company – and have you considered what we should take away from the scandal? 

It all started when security researcher, Zach Edwards, tweeted about the surprising discoveries of his audit. While the browser was successful in blocking Google and Facebook trackers, he learned that there was a carve-out for Microsoft, allowing them monopoly access to users’ data flows when browsing certain non-Microsoft platforms. 

The CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, was quick to respond to the criticism, disclosing that DDG does indeed allow Microsoft trackers due to the search syndication agreement between the two companies, which “prevents us from doing more to Microsoft-owned properties.”  In a Tweet, he added: “We’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes to change these requirements, though our syndication agreement also has a confidentiality provision that prevents disclosing details. Again, we expect to have an update soon that will include more third-party Microsoft protection.”

When the cybersecurity and technology news site BleepingComputer published an article on the subject, Weinberg also defended the company by issuing a statement in which he explains that DDG have always been careful to never promise anonymity when browsing “because that frankly isn’t possible given how quickly trackers change how they work to evade protections and the tools they currently offer.” The overall message seemed to be that compared to the other options on the market, DDG is still safer than most, even if there is a Microsoft carve-out. 

“Privacy is a right we need to fight for.”

Despite Weinberg’s efforts, Edwards was not convinced and it is safe to say people were not happy to hear that the company they had trusted to ensure their privacy, and which had even launched its own “private” browser promising built-in tracker blocking, now seemed to be in bed with the enemy. In light of the uncovered information, users felt misled considering that even the DDG App Store description (which has been updated since) firmly stated: “Tracker Radar automatically blocks hidden third-party trackers we can find lurking on websites you visit in DuckDuckGo, which stops the companies behind those trackers from collecting and selling your data.” 

However, amongst the dissatisfaction, there was another side of the discourse. While the tech community was kicking up a fuss, people who were more removed from the privacy debate would easily jump to the conclusion that “Nothing is private anymore. Haven’t you heard?” and “Privacy is already dead.” For example, when Sasha Ozornin, who provides news updates and breakdowns on TikTok, shared the story with her followers hoping to warn them, she was mostly met with underwhelm and indifference.

The problem is that this kind of attitude is understandable considering that allowing a limited number of trackers seems like a non-issue in comparison to the big-scale data exploitation that is going on right under our noses. But at the same time, the pressure of people wanting more and expecting more of a company does actually lead to change. In fact, a few months after facing backlash, DDG announced amended terms with Microsoft. While there is still some allowance of Microsoft trackers because DDG relies on Microsoft for ads shown in its search engine, this example proves that privacy is not dead. It is a right we need to fight for. Day by day. Step by step. 

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