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Privacy Tech | Oscobo lets users search without fear of tracking Related reading: A look inside the sold out Privacy Engineering Section Forum

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Working for the IAPP has opened my eyes to privacy trends I had no idea existed, to the point where I retroactively feel embarrassed for how little I paid attention to how my data is being used on a daily basis.

Now I traverse the internet and can more fully see how my data’s being used to advertise back to me. I see everything from websites I visited popping up on my social media feeds, to recent purchases staring at me as I scroll through internet search results. I feel like Keanu Reeves after he took the red pill in “The Matrix,” without the bullet-time fight scenes, nonsense monologues, and crappy sequels.

All of this information had made me curious to discover ways to hide my online presence. First, I took a spin on the deep web. This time, I explored Oscobo, a search engine designed to protect the privacy of its users.

I spoke with Oscobo co-founders Fred Cornell and Rob Perin on how their search engine keeps users anonymous, and what prompted them to create this new outlet.

“When we started using the internet in the mid-90s, there was a very simple social contract between users and publishers and advertisers,” said Cornell. “You thought it was a great arrangement to get content in exchange for a few ads.”

Cornell, who got his start at Yahoo, had a front row seat to what was happening to search data as technology advanced.

“I saw firsthand at Yahoo what was happening to people’s data, and I started to feel quite uncomfortable with it because no one had the users’ best interest at heart,” said Cornell. “It was all about how much can we harvest, how much we can use, and how much can we sell it for.”

Cornell had met Perin, who had previously worked at Blackberry, several times before the two joined forces to launch Oscobo in January 2015.

Oscobo pledges never to place cookies or track IP addresses. Every time a user goes onto Oscobo, it will be like the first time they arrived on the site.

How do they accomplish this?

“When you go to a website, the first thing they do is look at who you are; they look at your IP address, and they log that. The first thing we do is we’ve instructed our servers to throw that IP address away as soon as it gets to the servers, so we don’t even store it,” said Cornell. “We also don’t use any cookies, which a very unusual thing on the internet in this day and age. It prevents misuse of cookies further down the road, and it’s also a very strong signal from us to our users that we don’t intend to sell any information we may have on you to anyone else.”

Oscobo is a very simple search engine to use. Similar to Google, Yahoo and other search engines, it has the listing of articles on the subject you searched, an image tab, a video tab, and a news tab.

The results are laid out similar to Google, except there are more choices to pick per page. The video tab had relevant videos on the subject I searched. For instance, I oscoboed “Red Sox,” and saw the MLB.com highlights from the past weeks’ worth of games. The images tab wasn’t working at the moment, but Cornell and Perin assured me it would be fixed in due time.

One aspect I enjoyed, particularly as a social media enthusiast, was a Twitter feed on the right hand side of the screen. This is a particularly nifty addition to the search engine experience and one Perin and Cornell implemented by design.

The addition of a Twitter feed was a nice touch.

The addition of a Twitter feed was a nice touch.

“Even the search results from a search engine are not updated on the minute,” said Cornell. “There’s still a filtering thing going on there. It’s not going to have completely up-to-date developments in it. But Twitter feeds and other social media feeds, they will pick up something instantly.”

This type of search engine isn’t a new concept. DuckDuckGo is another search engine priding itself on not retaining any information on its users. Cornell and Perin say Oscobo is a friend of DuckDuckGo, and they respect their work, while noting some slight technical differences between the two companies.

“If you don’t want U.S. results, you have to go in there [DuckDuckGo] and change the settings, pick the country that you are from, and then ironically, it places a cookie down and remembers that,” said Perin.

“On the technical side, we are based out of Germany. It’s a small detail, but the privacy protection in Germany is a lot stronger than most places in the world, and lots of people like where our servers are located,” Cornell added.

Location-based results were a point of emphasis for Perin and Cornell. Oscobo originally started out with their British domain, but have now branched out to include a U.S. version, with more domains coming down the pipeline.

Oscobo is also planning to add more features to make it in line with some of the more user-friendly aspects other search engines provide.

“That’s something that we plan to do continue to do, and add more features, and give a more 360 view on the topic that you typed in,” said Cornell. “The next step also for us is to provide more instant answers to the question that you typed in, for instance by including from Wikipedia.”

The duo also plan on continuing to work on educating demographics most in need of protecting their information, from families, to teenagers who may not care about protecting their data.

“The groups we are looking to tackle in the future, which we believe could be a future market for us, are family and kids,” said Perin. “Protecting data doesn’t have to be about protecting from advertisers. It could just be, in principle, protecting data of kids’ habits.”

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