Blippex offers a new, and private, way of searching — but privacy is elusive

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Seems like no communication is safe from the NSA or at least from speculation that the government is snooping on it. This week the head of the National Security Agency denied reports that his outfit had run surveillance on American social media accounts. But really who isn’t feeling monitored? That is one of the reasons two computer guys in Berlin started Blippex. It’s a project that is trying to reinvent the way we use Internet search engines. Step one, rank pages by how long people spend on a website. Step two, make it private. Now that second objection, well, even Blippex co-founder, Max Kossatz, admits it’s really an impossible task.

Max Kossatz: The only thing we can do is make it really harder for everyone--especially for them--to get the data.

Werman: Them being the NSA, of course. So, the goal for Blippex is to make it as hard as possible for them to track your digital trail. Nice idea, huh? Well, Christopher Mims is a technology writer with Quartz. Christopher, what do you make of projects like Blippex? Can they really deliver a search engine experience that’s really private?

Christopher Mims: I think that they can get us awfully close. So, Blippex works by not gathering data in the first place. So, Google gives us what’s called a personalized search. When you’re logged in, it’s gathering information about what you’re searching for, and if you’re in Gmail and other Google apps, it’s using that data to personalize the ads that it shows you as well. And Blippex is just very very scrupulous about not capturing anything in the first place. So, if they don’t have a log of that data, no hacker can ever steal it and no government can ever sopena it.

Werman: Isn’t not gathering data though, a business death knell for a search engine?

Mims: That’s a good point. So, when you talk to the guys behind Blippex and you ask them what their business model is, they say, “We have no idea.” But as we’ve seen with, for example, Twitter, which is about to have an IPO and probably be worth many billions of dollars, you don’t have to have a business model in the Internet economy for years.

Werman: So, you’ve been using Blippex. Does it work? Do you feel private?

Mims: So, the funny thing is that I am not somebody who is obsessed with Internet privacy. I just assume that every time I touch a computer every single keystroke is available to a government body somewhere. But I use the Blippex plug-in which shows me Blippex’s search results alongside Google’s when I search Google. And I find that very useful because Blippex’s way of ranking pages is different enough from Google that it surfaces interesting results.

Werman: You know, in this age when we know what the NSA is up to, why do you feel comfortable with the knowledge that everything you search, everything you do online is being watched?

Mims: I think it’s really important to think of what you do online as being public because the only real protection you have against accidentally revealing information that you don’t want to reveal, is by maintaining, I think, that level of paranoia. So, you know, I’m not part of an international criminal syndicate and I don’t have anything that I’m particularly worried about hiding from the government right now. But if I had very unpopular political views or there was some other reason that I didn’t want something to be public, I wouldn’t put it on the Internet and I wouldn’t communicate it by that means. I mean I’m a journalist, occasionally I will have conversations with people that I don’t want there to be a record of, other than a record that I control, and you know, that is what the telephone is for. Obviously the NSA has access to those call records as well, but there is no substitute for in-person conversation, there is no substitute for sharing things directly with your friends in a physical format. I just think the nature of the Internet, it is a surveillance machine, and we can go to elaborate ends to try to quote unquote protect ourselves in that context, but security experts will tell you that there is no such thing as perfect security ever.

Werman: So, can you make a search engine that is a hundred percent NSA proof?

Mims: You can to the level that most people want it to be. So, if you are engaging in activities that you absolutely need to keep secure, then you need to find another way to search and you need to consult with experts. If you’re just an everyday person who doesn’t like the idea that the government is spying on everything that you do, which is I think the overwhelming majority of people who are upset about these NSA leaks, then there are tons of technologies that you can use to kind of annoy the NSA and make it more difficult. So, in a way it might be a symbolic act of protest, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

Werman: Bottom line though is if you want something really private, go to a park and meet somebody and don’t let anybody hear it, or..?

Mims: Nothing has changed since the days of Watergate. If you want to pass secret information, you better find a parking garage somewhere where you can hand it off.

Werman: Christopher Mims, a technology writer with Quartz, thanks so much for your time.

Mims: That was fun.