DuckDuckGo’s search syndication deal with Microsoft is the root of an issue leading to data being tracked in the company’s allegedly private mobile web browser.
It was discovered this week that DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser transfers data to Microsoft-owned properties when visiting certain websites.
This was confirmed by DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, who is working to preserve the company’s reputation after the potentially damaging discovery was shared on Twitter.
Does that mean the privacy-centric DuckDuckGo isn’t as private as we’ve come to believe?
Here’s what was revealed about DuckDuckGo’s browser, what the CEO has to say in response, and why critics aren’t satisfied.
DuckDuckGo Browser Allows Microsoft Trackers
Security researcher Jacob Edwards posted evidence in a lengthy Twitter thread showing DuckDuckGo’s mobile browser transferring data to Microsoft’s LinkedIn and Bing Ads.
You can capture data within the DuckDuckGo so-called private browser on a website like Facebook's https://t.co/u8W44qvsqF and you'll see that DDG does NOT stop data flows to Microsoft's Linkedin domains or their Bing advertising domains.
iOS + Android proof:
— ℨ𝔞𝔠𝔥 𝔈𝔡𝔴𝔞𝔯𝔡𝔰 (@thezedwards) May 23, 2022
If this were a web browser from any other company, the transferring of data to a third-party wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary.
For DuckDuckGo, a company that markets itself as one that doesn’t track users, this is turning into quite a scandal.
Privacy is the company’s entire mission statement. “We don’t track you. Ever,” reads DuckDuckGo’s homepage at the time of this writing.
Any amount of tracking therefore goes against DuckDuckGo’s mission statement.
Although this issue appears to be exclusive to Micrsoft-owned properties, DuckDuckGo is still promising a level of security it’s not delivering on.
DuckDuckGo CEO Responds To Criticism
Weinberg was quick to respond to the criticism of his company, confirming Microsoft trackers aren’t blocked on the DuckDuckGo browser.
However, he attempts to downplay the situation because it doesn’t impact DuckDuckGo’s search results.
“This is not about search,” he begins in statement published to the Hacker News forum.
Isn’t it, though?
If it weren’t for the search syndication deal between DuckDuckGo and Microsoft, this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.
While it may have “no bearing on our search results,” as a DuckDuckGo spokesperson tells PCMag.com, it’s intrinsically related to the search contract with Microsoft.
DuckDuckGo’s public relations tour doesn’t end there. Anyone criticizing the company on Twitter is met with the same copied and pasted reply from Weinberg:
“Hi, FYI — this isn’t about our search engine, and we actually restrict Microsoft scripts in our browsers, including blocking their 3rd party cookies. If you want full context, I left a detailed explanation on reddit.”
In the Reddit thread he links to, Weinberg clarifies DuckDuckGo doesn’t promise anonymity when browsing outside its search engine.
Further, he contends that “nothing can provide 100% protection,” and what DuckDuckGo offers is “the best thing out there for mainstream users.”
What are the key takeaways from all this?
In short — the company that promises not to track you ever is actually tracking you sometimes.
We’ve learned that total anonymity isn’t guaranteed when browsing with DuckDuckGo outside its search engine.
DuckDuckGo is contractually obligated to allow Microsoft trackers in its web browser.
The company continues to promise protection from data trackers when conducting search queries on DuckDuckGo.com.
Whether this has a lasting impact on DuckDuckGo’s reputation remains to be seen.
To DuckDuckGo’s credit, it’s rare to see a CEO get in front of an issue so quickly and publicly address peoples’ concerns. Weinberg has been nothing but transparent about the search deal between DuckDuckGo and Microsoft.
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