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Privacy Tech | DuckDuckGo's new tools grade websites on privacy protections Related reading: The GDPR and consent interfaces: A technician's view

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For years, DuckDuckGo has been working to give internet patrons an alternative to the trackers they normally encounter on other search engines. 

The company’s CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, told Privacy Tech in a phone interview that he feels his organization has finally reached a point where users are familiar with DuckDuckGo enough to feel like they do not have to go back to other well-known brands. Now, the company’s mission is to ensure they are protecting users from internet dangers once they click on the sites they are searching for.

To that end, DuckDuckGo has released a new browser extension and a revamped version of its mobile app. The extension works across all five major platforms—iOS, Android, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari—while the mobile app incorporates all of the new features displayed in its desktop counterpart. 

The new tools have three functions. One of the features will block all trackers found on a website. The tool allows users to see the trackers in two separate categories: one for normal trackers, and another for major trackers, such as the ones deployed by bigger tech companies.

Another feature is the smarter encryption functionality. When a user goes to a website, DuckDuckGo will find whether the site has an HTTPS address. If the website does not send the user to the encrypted version of the site, the extension and app will automatically do it for them.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Grade. Any time a user goes onto a website, the products will assess a grade based on whether the site uses encryption, the amount of trackers it deploys, and the quality of its privacy policy.

By clicking the “Privacy Protection” button, users can also compare a site’s grades before and after the tools have done their job. For example, Wired.com’s grade without any of the tools’ privacy protections is a D, but once the trackers are blocked and the encryption is assessed, its grade moves up to a B.

Some of the trackers DuckDuckGo's moble app found on Wired.com. The website's Privacy Grade is a B.

Some of the trackers DuckDuckGo's moble app found on Wired.com. The website's Privacy Grade is a B.

Weinberg said one factor often stands in the way of most companies earning top marks.

“On the privacy policy side, the unfortunate reality is most sites are not adequately protecting people’s privacy, and so hardly any sites get an A,” Weinberg explained. “Previous privacy products make the case that you are protected if you block trackers and get encryption, and what we are trying to say is that is not necessarily true.”

Even with strong encryption and blocked trackers, a privacy policy could allow companies to gather and sell user information. Weinberg said privacy policies are often long and need to be vetted, which is why DuckDuckGo has partnered with “Terms of Service Didn’t Read” to help score the quality of privacy policies while continuing to do research on other sites’ policies to continuously update the tools.

When asked about the sites that score on the lower end of the A-through-F scale, Weinberg said news organizations are often a common offender, given the large number of trackers they usually have on their sites.

DuckDuckGo has been moving toward expanding their brand outside of being a private search engine, and the release of the new browser extension and mobile app come as attitudes toward the internet are changing. “It’s coming off the heels of people really waking up to the fact that, over the last two years in particular, the internet has become a much creepier place,” said Weinberg.

DuckDuckGo's browser extension examining Bank of America's website.

DuckDuckGo's browser extension examining Bank of America's website.

The product isn't just for consumers. Enterprises can find uses for DuckDuckGo’s latest offerings as well. Weinberg said companies should not want their employees profiled on the web. DuckDuckGo’s tools, he argued, can help reduce the amount of data a company exposes online, reducing its chances of suffering leaks.

Up until this point, Weinberg found most companies attempting to do what DuckDuckGo has done with its new tools have not been able to either launch a product that works across more than a few platforms, or find a way to block trackers without negatively affecting a user’s online experience. The company had to work around these issues when creating the extension and the app, while figuring out how to deliver a seamless, easy-to-use product.

DuckDuckGo will continue to update their new tools in the upcoming months, but for now, the company is happy with its new offerings.

“It complements the search engine in a sense that previously, if you were on DuckDuckGo, you could be anonymous, but once you got off, you were subject to the privacy policy of the site,” said Weinberg. “It really wraps up the experience, which is why we are saying private search needs to be in there as a privacy essential.

Image courtesy of a press kit provided by DuckDuckGo.

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