Privacy-centric alternatives to Google, Gmail, and Facebook

If you're worried about sacrificing your privacy when you search, read, and send e-mail, or use a social network, switch to a service that safeguards your personal information.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

The concern about Google, Facebook, and other popular Web services tracking their customers may have you wondering whether there are more-private alternatives. The Ixquick.com metasearcher, PrivacyHarbor.com and Hushmail e-mail services, and FolkDirect social network promise to stay out of your affairs.

Metasearch minus tracking and history
Google lets you erase all or part of your Web history with five clicks: after you sign into your account, click the down arrow in the top-right menu, choose Account Settings, select Web History under "My products" (you may need to sign in again), click Clear entire Web History, and choose Clear History.

Of course, you can also delete only portions of your Web history by checking those you want to remove and clicking Remove.

Google Web History options
To erase Google's history, open the Web History app and check the entries you want to remove, or "Clear entire Web History" to clean the slate. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Then again, you could simply avoid having to delete anything by searching without leaving traces. At Ixquick.com you can search without disclosing your IP address or being tracked by cookies. In my informal search tests, Google's results were more informative, but Ixquick handled searches on specialized and general terms effectively, making answers easy to find.

Ixquick can't match Google or other major search engines for news reporting. When I was looking for the results of last night's NHL playoff game on Ixquick, I entered "stanley cup conference finals" and pressed Enter. The information I was looking for was on the fifth link in the results. By contrast, the score and a short recap appeared under News in Google's results as soon as I had typed "stanley cup."

If you can do without Google's depth, completeness, and timeliness, however, Ixquick promises to find the information you're looking for without keeping any record of your Web searching.

Web mail services on the QT
Gmail users have grown accustomed to the contextual ads that appear to the right of messages. The ads will soon feature images, as Randall Stross reported on the The New York Times Digital Domain blog. More importantly, Google hopes to make the ads more relevant to what's currently on your mind, while simultaneously reducing the total number of ads it shows you.

The company is working to improve the way it monitors and responds to your interactions with messages. Keywords appearing in mail you read right away versus those in messages you ignore may indicate the subjects--and ads--you're really interested in.

While the analysis is all done by machine--no human reads your mail, Google assures us--the monitoring is recorded at some level for at least a short time, and maybe longer. Despite Google's assurances of anonymity, it's safer to to use on a Web mail service that doesn't run your messages through its bots.

PrivacyHarbor.com promises to keep your e-mail private by sending recipients links to the messages you send them rather than the messages themselves. The recipients click the link to open the message on PrivacyHarbor.com's secure mail servers. The person's response is sent from the same server, and the entire transaction is conducted over encrypted (HTTPS) connections.

Registering for PrivacyHarbor.com entails providing a first and last name, username, password, and either an existing e-mail address or a security question and answer, such as the name of your first school. A free account lets you send as many as 60 unsecured messages a month and provides up to 500MB of storage.

For $30 a year you get up to 5GB of storage and support for attachments as large as 100MB, including read-only attachments. You're also able to delay and retrieve sent messages, and send any number of messages. The $60-a-year Executive account provides up to 10GB of storage and lets you use your own e-mail address.

The first time a person receives a message from this account, a simple image-selection test authorizes them to view the item and respond, if they wish, over the secure connection.

PrivacyHarbor.com authorization test
When you send mail from a PrivacyHarbor.com account, the recipient is authorized to view the message on a secure server via a simple test. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You can import contacts via file upload or add people to your contacts as you send messages to them. You can also receive mail at your PrivacyHarbor.com address.

The Hushmail secure-e-mail service goes a step further by encrypting the messages you send, although the recipients must either be "registered to receive encrypted mail" or know the answer to a question you specify.

Hushmail security question and answer
Sending encrypted messages from Hushmail requires that recipients be registered to receive such mail or know the answer to a question you enter in advance. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The free version of Hushmail is limited to 2MB; for $35 a year you get up to 1GB of storage, and for $50 a year the Desktop plan allows up to 10GB of storage. You can sign up for the free service without having to provide any personal information--just choose a username and pass phrase.

A less-inquisitive social network host
Even if a good number of Facebook's 500 million accounts are used only sporadically, there's no denying the social network's popularity. Still, most Facebook friends lists number in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands, with noteworthy exceptions.

Should a few dozen friends and family decide to try a social network service that takes less interest in who they know and what they share with others, they may find what they're looking for at FolkDirect (beware the loud promo that plays when the page opens).

To sign up for the free service, enter a first and last name, a username, e-mail address, password, age, and gender. Once your account is created, you can add an avatar and create a profile. In addition to enhanced privacy controls, FolkDirect promises "in-house gaming" and blog tools. There are no third-party applications, and ads aren't based on your data, according to the company.

The service prompts you to change the default privacy settings to allow only your friends to see your wall posts but to allow anyone to search for you. Your options are "My friends, no search inclusion," "Search friendly," "Everyone," and "Only me."

FolkDirect privacy options
The FolkDirect social network offers users five privacy options and doesn't support third-party applications. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

You get the same four choices for dozens of options in the service's Privacy Settings. FolkDirect will post an invitation to the network on your Facebook wall and let you upload contacts from popular e-mail services and social networks, including Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and Orkut; I didn't test this option.

It's anyone's guess whether FolkDirect or another social network service catches the imagination of the Web masses the way Facebook has. Maybe when it comes to social networks, size isn't everything.