EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 6, 2013

Private search engine website, Zeekly, latest to protect your online privacy

BY SUSAN THURSTON
Tampa Bay Times

---- — HOMOSASSA, Fla. --Jeffrey Sisk spends most days on his veranda overlooking the woods, working on a computer. His dog, Simon, a Shih Tzu, sits at his feet. His TV stays tuned to Fox News or CNN.

Sisk was outraged by news that the U.S. government is monitoring the email and Internet activity of American citizens, information that was leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Sisk felt strongly that the government should not spy on average, unsuspecting citizens.

Sisk, 49, quickly got to work creating Zeekly.com, a search engine that protects the privacy of its users. Unlike Google, Yahoo and other search engines, it doesn’t keep track of websites people visit or the keywords they search. And because Zeekly is encrypted, Internet and phone providers can’t decipher the communication between a user’s Web browser and Zeekly’s servers.

“If I got a court order tomorrow, I can honestly tell them we’re not storing the data,’’ he said. “There’s nothing for the government to get.’’

Zeekly joins an expanding field of search engines devoted to privacy, an issue high on many people’s minds since the Snowden story. The largest, DuckDuckGo, saw usage jump to 4 million daily searches this month from 1.4 million a year ago. After some mentions on news and techie sites, Zeekly reached a total of 1 million page views after the first week.

DuckDuckGo founder and chief executive officer Gabriel Weinberg said all the talk about Snowden created an opportunity for DuckDuckGo users to spread the word about the site and its usefulness. Many people accustomed to Google switched to DuckDuckGo as their primary search engine.

“There are many good reasons why people don’t want to be tracked, and it’s not just the government requests, which are serious. It’s also the commercial ads,’’ he said. “People are noticing they are following them around. It’s kind of creepy and annoying, and it’s getting worse.’’

Internet security and policy experts say Web privacy isn’t just a fad fueled by the latest news of government snooping. But whether these sites can become mainstream remains to be seen.

“I’m not sure if these websites will ever replace companies like Google, which have woven a range of other services into Web search, but I do think they will do very well,’’ said Hibah Hussain, a policy program associate of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank. “Hopefully, they can give incentives to the larger players to pay attention to privacy issues.’’

A Georgia native, Sisk taught himself computer programming. His Zeekly moment came when news broke in June about Snowden and the government’s surveillance program. Soon after, on Aug. 1, Zeekly was born.

Sisk says Zeekly has advantages over other privacy search engines, because all of its searches are protected. DuckDuckGo, for example, protects its Web searches, but any search for an image or video directs users to a site subject to its own privacy policy.

As the site evolves, Zeekly hopes to make money off pay-per-click and banner advertising, like other search engines. Zeekly can feed ads to users as they are doing searches, but there is no permanent record of what they looked for.

Despite its fast rise, Zeekly hasn’t been criticism-free. Phil Bradley, who writes a blog about Internet searching, said he liked Zeekly’s comprehensive list of search options -- news, sports, Amazon, iTunes, audio, Wiki, etc. -- but he wasn’t impressed by its search rankings.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.