The privacy focused DuckDuckGo browser is reputedly the place to go if you’re seeking to avoid intrusive web trackers from the likes of Google and Facebook.
However, a new report casts doubt on the privacy-centric practices, revealing an agreement with Microsoft to enable the software giant to run some trackers via the browser.
The revelation comes from the security researcher Zach Edwards (via Bleeping Computer and 9to5Mac) who discovered that when using the iOS and Android browser “neither version blocked data transfers to Microsoft’s LinkedIn + Bing ads while viewing Facebook’s workplace[.]com homepage.”
Posting the proof for all to see, Edwards added: “You can capture data within the DuckDuckGo so-called private browser on a website like Facebook’s http://workplace.com and you’ll see that DDG does NOT stop data flows to Microsoft’s LinkedIn domains or their Bing advertising domains.”
It’s not a great look for a company that preaches so earnestly about the public’s right for their activity not to be tracked across the web. However, DuckDuckGo has attempted to provide the context for the arrangement: It actually worked with Microsoft to help make ad clicks protected and the limited tracking is a side-effect it’s attempting to rectify.
The DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg responded by saying it is working with Microsoft make sure third-party trackers are blocked on Microsoft-owned companies such as those mentioned by Edwards.
He wrote: “When you load our search results, you are completely anonymous, including ads. For ads, we worked with Microsoft to make ad clicks protected. From our public ads page, ‘Microsoft Advertising does not associate your ad-click behaviour with a user profile’. For non-search tracker blocking (eg in our browser), we block most third-party trackers.”Unfortunately our Microsoft search syndication agreement prevent us from doing more to Microsoft-owned properties. However, we have been continually pushing and expect to be doing more soon. We’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes to change these requirements, though our syndication agreement also has a confidentially provision that prevents disclosing details.”
In a statement, the company added that it cannot promise full anonymity for browser users, but it goes much further than the likes of Safari, Firefox and others by blocking them before the launch on third party websites.
It added: “What we’re talking about here is an above-and-beyond protection that most browsers don’t even attempt to do — that is, blocking third-party tracking scripts before they load on 3rd party websites. Because we’re doing this where we can, users are still getting significantly more privacy protection with DuckDuckGo than they would using Safari, Firefox and other browsers.”
So, while this does sound like a bit of a storm in a teacup, it’s always a lesson to web users: Never assume full protection. While companies like DuckDuckGo offer safeguarding from aggressive and intrusive trackers, there’s usually a caveat.