AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

ProtonMail: A Survivors Tale

Beginning November 3rd, encrypted email service provider, ProtonMail, came under a DDOS attack by blackmailers. Here is my experience, as a supporter and subscriber, watching from the sidelines. It’s a survival story with many heroes that reads like a Mr. Robot script.

Why Encrypt Your Email?

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that I just love. It overcomes the problems with email providers’ harvesting your personal data for resale, the pitfalls of these databases falling into criminal hands and just plain weirdness you feel when every word, attachment and contact is shared to whomever.

To make my point on why everyone should use encrypted email, like ProtonMail, consider this experience: I recently had to fill out an affidavit confirming my identity but did not have all the particulars with me, such as past addresses, etc. No problem, I just logged into my 12 year old Gmail account and did some searching. In no time, I had all the personal info the affidavit required to prove my identity.

It’s not that I purposely saved all this information in there. It just accumulates over the years organically.

Imagine if that data fell into the wrong hands.

ProtonMail is a crowd-funded, free email service that comes out of the CERN laboratories in Switzerland and MIT. The engineers at these research facilities were inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowdon about back doors into email servers and the general collection of data by governments, so they built ProtonMail.

The service is simple, elegant and super secure. The encryption happens through the use of a client-side password, so theoretically, nobody, not even ProtonMail, can decrypt your emails and read them.

ProtonMail Taken Down

The recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack began on November 3rd when a group held for ransom access to ProtonMail’s email service. This was a very sophisticated attack that flooded their servers with requests, but also their ISP. The result was that ProtonMail and several other sites, including e-commerce and banking sites, were unreachable. After failing to successfully fight back, the ISP and other firms put enormous pressure on ProtonMail to pay off the cyber gang. They did so and the attack stopped…momentarily.

Less than half a day later, the attack re-commenced. This time it was even more sophisticated and destructive. And, things got even weirder. The original blackmailers actually contacted ProtonMail to let them know they were not involved in the new attack. ProtonMail is pretty certain that the second attack was likely a state entity.

You can read all the details on their blog post on the incident.

Over this past weekend, November 7-8th, ProtonMail launched a response to the ongoing attack, deploying new defensive technologies used by large Internet firms, funded through a GoFundeMe campaign. As of this writing nearly 1,500 individuals donated $50,000 in just 3 days to help in this regard.

Those would be the first, rather large, set of heroes. Thanks to you guys!

Click here to add to the fund.

Social Networks Get the Word Out

The media was really late to this story. It was not until the end of the week that the first news reports came out about the blackmail story made sexier by the fact that the ransom was paid with bitcoins.

Most of the breaking news, however, was only available on ProtonMail’s Twitter feed and their Sub-Reddit.

It was on their Twitter page that they first disclosed the moment-by-moment details of their fight to restore access and their ultimate attempt to fund new defensive technologies. It was on Reddit that the controversy and pain was aired such as reactions to their payment of the ransom and frustration of everyday users at not being able to access their email.

People really gave them a lot of credit, however. And it was heartening that, despite some rather single-minded rants, most people rallied around ProtonMail.

Lessons Learned

One thing I was surprised about were some of the complaints from business people that were using ProtonMail as their exclusive business email. They were losing money during the attack so they were often the most irate. But you have to wonder about someone using an emerging tool like ProtonMail for something so critical as company email. Obviously, new Internet services take time, especially when they are not backed by seasoned VCs who are risk adverse.

I personally had not made the switch to ProtonMail entirely. Part of this was because they don’t have an iPhone app yet, which is where I do about 50% of my emailing. But I was getting close.

So, yes, I had a few important emails get bounced back to the senders. And perhaps one or two have been lost permanently (I may never know). But it does go to show that, for the foreseeable future, ProtonMail is not a reliable sole-email solution. However, given the work they are doing in response to the latest attack, this event may be the turning point that makes them a truly stable email service.

Just this morning, they came under another attack, but unlike previous days over the past week, they were back online very quickly. Hopefully this means their new defenses are paying off.

Bottom Line

ProtonMail rocks. I really love it. The recent DDOS attack only confirms that the good team at CERN and MIT are dedicated to doing what it takes to keep this alive. I can think of other such services that have folded when they came under similar pressure. In fact, the user community around ProtonMail is as serious as ever, shelling out the money required to safeguard encrypted email just when it counted.

There will likely be further trouble ahead. The British government has suggested it might ban encrypted email services. And who knows how the US will respond long term. So, there could be more chop ahead. But for the time being, it seems that ProtonMail may have survived a very critical test of its resilience.

Stay tuned!

Private Email to Foil the Snoops – ProtonMail Review

As we’ve been learning over the past few years, privacy has been getting the thousand cuts treatment. Everyone’s been in the act. Et tu Google? You betcha.

Fortunately, you can stop inadvertently BCC’ing Google, the NSA, the Chinese government, hackers, marketers and other creepers of your personal content. That’s thanks to some good people who actually live by the mantra to “Do No Evil” who have created ways for email users everywhere to keep their messages between them and their recipients.

Over the past week, I’ve been exploring one of these, ProtonMail.

The True Cost of Free Email

Most email services are profitable because they sell everything that you type and attach in your emails to marketing companies. Vast profiles about you are generated from this content. Think about it: what diseases you talk to your relatives about, your political and religious beliefs, who you spend your time with, even documents you attach from tax info to intimate photos. It’s all in there, and it’s all for sale.

You might immediately wonder why your email provider is collecting all this. It’s none of their business, right? Well, it is because you made it their business when you agreed to the terms of service. Even down to the attachments, by using services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail, you are granting that company to access and sell the content to ad companies and beyond.

Now imagine that this database on you was to be hacked. Can’t happen? It has. The Chinese government hacked Gmail and has likely gleaned a ton of information on the world’s Gmail users. Most likely, they were interested in what their own citizens were writing, but if you ever wrote anything critical of China or work for a company with exposure to China, they might find that interesting too. Who knows!

The US Government has also hacked into Google (and just about every other Western tech firm) as well.

And if these entities can do it, so can criminals and the mischievous. So, again, why are we letting these firms put our information at risk in the first place?

Good news: you don’t have to anymore…

Private and Secure Email

Alternatives to Gmail and other market intelligence-based email services include:

HushMail and StartMail were early services that took your privacy seriously. Both promised not to ever sell your data, but their business model made up the difference by charging you for the pleasure of living privately and secure.

Tutanota and ProtonMail, on the other hand, are free. Both use similar end-to-end encryption techniques and are quite similar in most respects. When I weighed which one to go with, I ended up choosing ProtonMail, only because their servers are based in Switzerland, a country that has outlawed the seizure of private computer content.

My ProtonMail Experience

ProtonMail was created by developers working at the CERN lab in Switzerland who were inspired by Edward Snowden and who were shocked at how weak online security was becoming, thanks to very aggressive and dangerous actions by global intelligence services.

ProtonMail uses encryption that is unlocked locally, on your machine, so even if anyone broke into ProtonMail’s servers, they would need a few more years than the age of the Universe to decrypt your content. Translation: it’s pretty damn secure, despite claims that the NSA can decrypt encrypted data. They would still need a lot of time and effort to do so, so it’s unlikely they’ll go to such an effort unless you’re an active terrorist (or the leader of Germany).

Best of all, you can send securely encrypted emails even to people using Gmail or Hotmail. You do this by checking a box, creating a password and an optional password hint for the recipient. They then receive an email with a link to ProtonMail. By following that link, they are taken to a secure web page inside ProtonMail where they can read and reply to your message by using the password. Or, if it’s nothing you’re worried about sending, you can just send it as regular, unsecured email to your Gmail friends, in which case it works as normal…but can be gleaned for any info you might have carelessly included.

Here’s how ProtonMail pans out.

UI and Functionality

This is more than just a bare bones email service. ProtonMail comes with a secure Contacts manager, email search and many other features you would expect in a modern email service.

The UI is clean and very straightforward.

Probably the hardest thing about using ProtonMail is the encryption, but not because it’s complicated…it’s drop dead simple…but only because it adds a step to your email creation if you plan on sending encrypted emails to people on Gmail, for example. In this case, you just have to come up with a good password and hint that your friends can figure out. It can actually be a little hard to come up with something that isn’t as easily hacked as “The city we met in.”

The other complication is that you have two passwords. One is used to access your mailbox and the other is used to decrypt the messages. So you have to enter two of these. In my case, I use KeePass password manager, so I just create super crazy, long, gibberish-based passwords for both of these and store them in the manager. Then it’s just a copy and paste action that I need to do twice when I log in…slightly easier, in fact, than using the two-factor authentication I use with Google, compounded by my non-use of cookies.

The Mom Test

I tested the recipient experience with my Mom (very non-technical) and some friends (generally non-technical) to see if any of this would keep people from reading and replying to me. So far, ProtonMail only snagged my mom, because she didn’t think of using caps on a name I was using for the password.

My mom also didn’t understand that she had to reply from within the browser window. Some caveats here: I believe she still thinks of email as something that she has to do in AOL.

My friends fared much better with no reports of trouble. So overall, I’d say there is a small learning curve for some recipients.

The Private Future

The hope here is that most people will gravitate over to ProtonMail or services like them, so that everyone’s on the same, private page. As I mentioned above, there are some extra steps with using ProtonMail with non-ProtonMail recipients. But if you’re communicating with friends that also use ProtonMail, the encryption is already there and you can relax…so obviously, I hope you all join ProtonMail.

Your Job Has Been Robot-sourced

rosie-the-robot

“People are racing against the machine, and many of them are losing that race…Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”

– Erik Brynjolfsson, Innovation Researcher

Libraries are busy making lots of metadata and data networks. But who are we making this for anyway? Answer: The Machines

I spent the last week catching up on what the TED Conference has to say on robots, artificial intelligence and what these portend for the future of humans…all with an eye on the impact on my own profession: librarians.

A digest of the various talks would go as follows:

    • Machine learning and AI capabilities are advancing at an exponential rate, just as forecast
    • Robots are getting smarter and more ubiquitous by the year (Roomba, Siri, Google self-driving cars, drone strikes)

Machines are replacing humans at an increasing rate and impacting unemployment rates

The experts are personally torn on the rise of the machines, noting that there are huge benefits to society, but that we are facing a future where almost every job will be at risk of being taken by a machine. Jeremy Howard used words like “wonderful” and “terrifying” in his talk about how quickly machines are getting smarter (quicker than you think!). Erik Brynjolfsson (quoted above) shared a mixed optimism about the prospects this robotification holds for us, saying that a major retooling of the workforce and even the way society shares wealth is inevitable.

Personally, I’m thinking this is going to be more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution, which stirred up some serious feelings as you may recall: Unionization, Urbanization, Anarchism, Bolshevikism…but also some nice stuff (once we got through the riots, revolutions and Pinkertons): like the majority of the world not having to shovel animal manure and live in sod houses on the prairie. But what a ride!

This got me thinking about the end game the speakers were loosely describing and how it relates to libraries. In their estimation, we will see many, many jobs disappear in our lifetimes, including lots of knowledge worker jobs. Brynjolfsson says the way we need to react is to integrate new human roles into the work of the machines. For example, having AI partners that act as consultants to human workers. In this scenario (already happening in healthcare with IBM Watson), machines scour huge datasets and then give their advice/prognosis to a human, who still gets to make the final call. That might work for some jobs, but I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that being a little redundant at some point, especially when you’re talking about machines that may even be smarter than their human partner.

But still, let’s take the typical public-facing librarian, already under threat by the likes of an ever-improving Google. As I discussed briefly in Rise of the Machines, services like Google, IBM Watson, Siri and the like are only getting better and will likely, and possibly very soon, put the reference aspect of librarianship out of business altogether. In fact, because these automated information services exist on mobile/online environments with no library required, they will likely exacerbate the library relevance issue, at least as far as traditional library models are concerned.

Of course, we’re quickly re-inventing ourselves (read how in my post Tomorrow’s Tool Library on Steroids), but one thing is clear, the library as the community’s warehouse and service center for information will be replaced by machines. In fact, a more likely model would be one where libraries pool community resources to provide access to cutting-edge AI services with access to expensive data resources, if proprietary data even exists in the future (a big if, IMO).

What is ironic, is that technical service librarians are actually laying the groundwork for this transformation of the library profession. Every time technical service librarians work out a new metadata schema, mark up digital content with micro-data, write a line of RDF, enhance SEO of their collections or connect a record to linked data, they are really setting the stage for machines to not only index knowledge, but understand its semantic and ontological relationships. That is, they’re building the infrastructure for the robot-infused future. Funny that.

As Brynjolfsson suggests, we will have to create new roles where we work side-by-side with the machines, if we are to stay employed.

On this point, I’d add that we very well could see that human creativity still trumps machine logic. It might be that this particular aspect of humanity doesn’t translate into code all that well. So maybe the robots will be a great liberation and we all get to be artists and designers!

Or maybe we’ll all lose our jobs, unite in anguish with the rest of the unemployed 99% and decide it’s time the other 1% share the wealth so we can all, live off the work of our robots, bliss-out in virtual reality and plan our next vacations to Mars.

Or, as Ray Kurzweil would say, we’ll just merge with the machines and trump the whole question of unemployment, let alone mortality.

Or we could just outlaw AI altogether and hold back the tide permanently, like they did in Dune. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely…and the machines probably won’t allow it. LOL

Anyway, food for thought. As Yoda said: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”

Meanwhile, speaking of movies…

If this subject intrigues you, Hollywood is also jumping into this intellectual meme, pushing out several robot and AI films over the last couple years. If you’re interested, here’s my list of the ones I’ve watched, ordered by my rating (good to less good).

  1. Her: Wow! Spike Jonze gives his quirky, moody, emotion-driven interpretation of the AI question. Thought provoking and compelling in every regard.
  2. Black Mirror, S02E01 – Be Right Back: Creepy to the max and coming to a bedroom near you soon!
  3. Automata: Bleak but interesting. Be sure NOT to read the expository intro text at the beginning. I kept thinking this was unnecessary to the film and ruined the mystery of the story. But still pretty good.
  4. Transcendence: A play on Ray Kurzwell’s singularity concept, but done with explosions and Hollywood formulas.
  5. The Machine: You can skip it.

Two more are on my must watch list: Chappie and Ex Machina, both of which look like they’ll be quality films that explore human-robot relations. They may be machines, but I love when we dress them up with emotions…I guess that’s what you should expect from a human being. 🙂

Private Google Search Alternatives

Google NSA skin using Stylish Browser PluginA few weeks back, I dropped Google search in favor of DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine that does not log your searches. Today, I’m here to report on that experience and suggest two even better secure search tools: StartPage and Ixquick.

The probelm with DuckDuckGo

As I outlined in my initial blog post, DuckDuckGo falls down probably as a consequence of its emphasis on privacy. Whereas Google results are based on an array of personal variables that tie specific result sets to your social graph…a complex web of data points collected on you through your Chrome Browser, Android apps, browser cookies, location data, possibly even the contents of your documents and emails stored on Google’s servers (that’s a guess, but totally within the scope of reason). This is a considerable handicap for DuckDuckGo.

But moreover, Google’s algorithm remains superior to everything else out there.

The benefits of using DuckDuckGo, of course, are that you are far more anonymous, especially if you are searching in private browser mode, accessing the Internet through a VPN or Tor, etc.

Again, given the explosive revelations about aggressive NSA data collection and even of government programs that hack such social graphs, and the potential leaking of that data to even worse parties, many people may decide that, on balance, they are better off dealing with poor search precision rather than setting themselves up for a cataclysmic breach of their data.

I’m one such person, but to be quite honest, I was constantly turning back to Google because DuckDuckGo just wouldn’t get me what I knew was out there.

Fortunately, I found something better: StartPage and Ixquick.

Google but without all the evil

StartPage is a US version of the Dutch-based search engine Ixquick.

There are two important things to understand about StartPage and Ixquick:

  1. Like DuckDuckGo, StartPage and Ixquick are totally private. They don’t collect any data on you, don’t share any data with third parties and don’t use cookies. They also use HTTPS (and no Heartbleed vulnerabilities) for all transactions.
  2. Both StartPage and Ixquick use proxy services to query other search engines. In the case of Ixquick, they query multiple search engines and then return the results with the highest average rank. StartPage only queries Google, but via the proxy service, making your search private and free of the data mining intrigue that plagues the major search engines.

Still some shortcomings remain

But, like DuckDuckGo, neither Ixquick or StartPage are able to source your social graph, so they will never get results as closely tailored to you as Google. By design, they are not looking at your cookies or building their own database of you, so they won’t be able to guess your location or political views, and therefore, will never skew results around those variables. Then again, your results will be more broadly relevant and serendipitous, saving you from the personal echo-chamber that you may have found in Google.

Happily private

It’s been over a month since I switched from DuckDuckGo to StartPage and so far it’s been quite good. StartPage even has a passable image and video search. I almost never go to Google anymore. In fact, I’ve used a browser plugin called Stylish to re-skin Google’s search interface with the NSA logo just as a humorous reminder that every search is being collected by multiple parties.

For that matter, I’ve used the same plugin to re-skin StartPage since where they get high marks for privacy and search results, they’re interface design needs major work…but I’m just picky that way.

So, with my current setup, I’ve got StartPage as my default browser, set in my omnibar in Firefox. Works like a charm!

Return to Firefox

Firefox Logo by Andrew McCarthy & Kara Zichittella : Appicns“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
–Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

“If you want to stay anonymous online, you have to break links at every step”
–Ashkan Soltaini, privacy consultant

I’m breaking up with Google, one service at a time. Last week it was Google’s search engine, which I swapped for DuckDuckGo. This week, it’s Google’s Chrome Browser.

As I said a week ago, recent revelations of the commodification of our personal information, the revolving door our personal information swings through between tech companies and the world governments and the increasingly effective hacking of our financial transactions and personal information, has made me rethink my decision to trade privacy for convenience.

Step one was to wean myself off of Google.com.

Step two will be to sever another link in the chain between me and Google’s databases: the Chrome Browser.

To be fair, Chrome can be configured and used in a very private and secure way. You can surf “incognito,” leaving no history of what pages you have traversed. You can also use the browser so that it deletes your cookies when you end a session.

And as always, some of the best encryption freely available comes built into the Chrome browser.

So, you could easily argue that dropping Chrome is actually less secure.

But, I think you could equally argue that handing over your private data to any company is taking a big leap of faith. Especially, when that data can add up to a very personal and detailed profile of you. For example, the consolidation of Google Plus, Gmail and YouTube accounts meant that user data across these sites could now be consolidated into a single database of web activity that included a matrix of personal email, web searches, social connections, video views and even the text of attachments. Worse, Google claims ownership to this data once you “share” it with them.

So just because Chrome can be directed (by advanced users) to minimize the data shared with Google, you have to wonder. A breach of this very robust personal data is entirely possible. Indeed, the Chinese apparently already did this. And, as privacy expert Ashkan Soltaini (quoted above) notes, why help snoopers, hackers and commercial interests gather intelligence on you by (unnecessarily) relying on its browser?

¡Adiós el Chromo!

I was once a big Firefox fan, so switching back was not that hard. I stopped using Firefox, only because another Firefox-clone, called Flock, came out in 2009 with many social networking features built in. This was largely around the time the Add-on marketplace for Firefox wasn’t really keeping up. But the people behind Flock eventually abandoned the project and so I was momentarily back in Firefox. But around that time, Firefox (at least the Mac OS version) was pretty lousy in terms of handling complex websites that were deploying AJAX and other javascript intensive activities.

One of the best things about Chrome, in fact, was its speed…and some built-in development tools that I felt were way superior to their closest Firefox Add-ons, like Firebug. So, I started using Chrome…until a week ago.

First and foremost, Firefox comes to us from Mozilla, an open-source organization that has proven itself deeply concerned with protecting privacy and security on the web.

Firefox Privacy Settings

I’ve experimented with the privacy settings in Firefox, and I consider my current setup a work in progress. My focus here is to give some guidelines for how one might configure Firefox to maximize their privacy while not making everything a test of their faith.

Search

  • Remove Google, Bing and Yahoo! from the search engines installed in Firefox
  • Add a private search engine as the default. As of this writing, I use DuckDuckGo right now, but I’m experimenting with others. Update: Read my post on Startpage, which is my preferred private search engine now.
  • Optional: I added the Omnibar add-on for a more Chrome-like experience, which as far as I can tell does not report back what you enter it to the developer’s database. If you’re concerned about this, just don’t add the Omnibar.

Privacy

  • Obviously be sure to select the “Tell sites I do not want to be tracked” setting.
  • History and Cookies: I go back and forth between not capturing history, keeping all history and deleting history upon closing Firefox. Currently, I have everything deleted when I end the session.
  • Set the browser to Never Accept Third Party Cookies

Security

  • I use a master password…and you’d be crazy not to. To understand why, just open your preferences and, under Security, click the Saved Passwords button. Then click Show Passwords. There they are…hopefully you’re not sharing your screen when you do this!

Sync and Advanced

  • I don’t sync, but I’ve been tempted to. I need to research this more before committing, but on the face of it, it feels less secure to do so.
  • Network, you can set up a SOCKS Proxy, but I use Private Internet Access VPN, when I’m using public wi-fi, so I haven’t explored this.
  • Make sure you have Auto-updates installed to be confident Firefox has the latest security patches, etc.

It’s been fun to be back in Firefox. I feel a little bit like a rebel, in fact! And the good news, the browser feels more light-weight and agile then in the past with all those heavy JavaScript-ladden sites running at a good clip! And, whoa! The developer tools are now built into Firefox, so that means one less Add-on slowing things down.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to explore other secure ways of living online. Coming soon: Thumb drive applications, Gmail alternatives and a secure way to get Google search without using Google!

A Technophiles Journey Off the Grid

Cookie Monster freaks out over cookies on his computer

Image by Surian Soosay

Okay, so it is likely impossible to actually “use” the Internet without it “using” you back. I get that. Terms of service get changed without clear explanation, cookies get saved, NSA snoops do what NSA snoops do. The whole business model of the Interwebs is set up to trade your info for access.

I’m under no illusions.

But, after the Great Target Hack and Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the NSA (I think we were all waiting for these things to happen), I’m finding myself rethinking the trade offs I made concerning privacy and online anonymity for online convenience (and laziness).

There was a time, when I used to block cookies and obsess over terms of service agreements. Hell, I even used Tor from time to time.

But, after awhile, it just became easier to stop worrying and learn to accept a level of personally sanctioned data breach. But now with all the stories of identity theft, commercialization of your personal info and multi-governmental and corporate sweeps of such data…it’s time for a little reflection…and retreat.

So, I’ve decided to experiment with reducing my digital footprint and I’ll post updates from time to time on how’s it going, in addition to my occasional posts on library projects.

Among my experiments, I’m planning on moving out of Googlelandia as much as possible, starting with changing the default search in my browser and moving back to Firefox. I’ll cover the Firefox post next time, but for now, let’s look at life without Google Search.

Most people online probably don’t remember a world before Google and those that do, don’t want to remember. Needless to say, Google’s initial search algorithm was so good, that it rapidly conquered the search market to the point that Yahoo! handed over its search to Microsoft and the dozens of smaller search engines were quickly forgotten. Anyone remember Web Crawler? Exactly!

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 12.52.53 PMAside from Bing (hack!) and the Bing-lite Yahoo! search, there really aren’t many alternatives worth turning to when one needs anonymity. That is, except for DuckDuckGo, a search engine that uses secure HTTPS, does not use cookies by default and generally does not collect any data linked to you (see their privacy statement for more info).

And the search results are not that bad.

But they aren’t great.

Life on DuckDuckGo will be very reminiscent of the best old-school search tools from the pre-Google 90s. Gone will be the kinds of results that require an analysis of your personal search history, online social habits and analysis of your cookies. Often you’ll get exactly what you’re after, but just as often, you’ll get it a few results lower on the page, just below some commercial sites that are using keyword tricks to rise to the top.

For example, I’m thinking about what color scheme I want to go with for my new flat and used DuckDuckGo to find sites that could help me with that. So I did a search for something like: “paint interior design color tools.” The first result led to a 404 page. The second result was not too bad, a Benjamin Moore paint selecting tool for professional painters. Other results were somewhere between these two extremes, with many of them going to pages that were slightly relevant but failed in the “authoritative” category.

Google expends a lot of effort at weeding out, or drowning out, pages with low street cred, and you’ll probably hardly ever get to a 404 page thanks to their very busy and persistent robots. Something else that will be hard to find in Google is nothing. In Google, the dreaded “Sorry. No results were found” message would be an amazing and rare feat of your talents for obscurity. Not so in DuckDuckGo…these come up from time to time.

DuckDuckGo also lacks an image and video search functionality. For this, they provide a dropdown that lets you search via Google or Bing.

I’d also add, that I’m using DuckDuckGo in a Firefox omnibar plugin, so as I type, I get suggested hits. These are also not as accurate or relevant as the Google version, but I’ve also limited it by not preserving any search history in Firefox.

After a few days of trying this out, I do like DuckDuckGo enough to keep using it, but I have had several lapses of risky searches on Google. This is especially true for professional work, where Google knows my work interests quite well and serves up exactly what I need. But for general searches, DuckDuckGo is a good tradeoff for privacy wonks.

Stay tuned for more journeys off the grid including my return to Firefox and experiments with thumb drive applications…