Technology

Verizon offers no-tracking search engine, promises to protect your privacy

Enlarge / Verizon's OneSearch, a privacy-focused search engine.Verizon

Verizon today launched a new search engine, claiming that its "OneSearch" service will offer users more privacy than the standard options in a market dominated by Google.

Verizon's actual search results are provided by Microsoft's Bing, but Verizon added several privacy-focused features—while retaining the ability to serve contextual ads.

"To allow for a free search engine experience, OneSearch is an ad-supported platform," Verizon said in its announcement. "Ads will be contextual, based on factors like search keywords, not cookies or browsing history."

Verizon already offered one well-known search engine, namely Yahoo's, as a result of buying Yahoo's operating business for $4.48 billion in 2017. Yahoo's search results are also provided by Bing, but they don't come with the same privacy promises.

Verizon said OneSearch comes with these privacy-focused features:

  • No cookie tracking, retargeting, or personal profiling
  • No sharing of personal data with advertisers
  • No storing of user search history

Under the search bar is a toggle to turn on "Advanced Privacy Mode." This "encrypts your search terms and search URL, masking your search intent from third parties," Verizon says. The resulting "encrypted search results link will expire within an hour, adding another layer of privacy in the event that multiple people use the same device or if a search results link is shared with a friend," Verizon says.

The Verizon search engine homepage says, "OneSearch doesn't use cookies. Period." Chrome detected that OneSearch did set one cookie on my computer, so that statement seems to be exaggerated. The EFF's Privacy Badger detected a potential tracker that's tied to the u.yimg.com domain, indicating a connection between OneSearch and Yahoo's image service. What Verizon apparently means is that it doesn't use cookies to build ad-targeting profiles.

Verizon uses your IP address to determine your "general location," helping it deliver location-specific search results. Verizon said that "We only ever infer location data up to the city level of specificity for search localization purposes."

Each contextual ad is based only "on each individual search that you perform," and it does not take into account "any of your previous search history or any other personal data that identifies you," Verizon says. Some anonymized information is shared with advertisers, the OneSearch privacy policy says:

For example, if you search for "flower shops" we may display an advertisement/search result for one or more flower shops. We will sometimes provide your Search Query and/or your general location to advertising partners in order to provide you with advertisements/search results but the information they receive is never identifiable to you as we do not provide your IP Address to any advertising partners.

Verizons failed media ventures

OneSearch is delivered by Verizon Media, the division based largely on Verizon acquisitions Yahoo and AOL. Verizon Media has failed to compete effectively against Google and Facebook in the online advertising market, and it has suffered multiple rounds of layoffs. Verizon has pursued various media ventures outside its core telecom business, such as the Go90 video service that was unpopular and shut down after less than three years.

While OneSearch is available on the Web today, Verizon said that mobile apps for Android and iOS will come later this month. Verizon said that OneSearch is initially available in North America and will be available in countries outside North America "soon."

How OneSearch works

The OneSearch privacy notice offers a breakdown of what happens after you enter a search query. The process involves Verizon, Microsoft's Bing, and other unnamed companies.

Here's a summary of how it works:

  1. Your IP address, search query, and user agent are transferred over HTTPS to Verizon servers. The user agent generally includes data about the browser, operating system, and type of device and app you're using to make the search.
  2. Verizon derives your city-level location data from your IP address and then sends your IP address, user agent, search query, and location data to Microsoft's Bing "so that the actual search request can be made through their search engine."
  3. Bing provides the search results to Verizon, and then Verizon's automated process "work[s] with our Search Partners to provide you with contextual advertisements and/or search results." Verizon describes the "search partners" vaguely as "certain companies providing search result optimization input" and says they "are not provided with your personal data."
  4. Verizon will store your IP address for four days "for the purpose of network traffic protection" and then permanently delete the IP address.
  5. Bing will continue to store the IP address, search query, and user agent, also for network traffic protection. After four days, Bing "obfuscates the IP address."

Additionally, Verizon says it stores your IP address, search query, and user agent "in different servers in such a way that they are not able to be connected."

Do you trust Verizon?

Verizon is an unlikely candidate to launch a product whose entire pitch is based on privacy. In March 2016, Verizon agreed to pay a $1.35 million fine and give users more control over "supercookies" that were used to identify cusRead More – Source

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