Noble goals but Ecosia falls short in their privacy claims

10/3/22: this post is being updated and may contain outdated information.

Ecosia has been popping up much more frequently, especially in light of the Amazon fires last year, and people are wondering if this search engine is something someone focused on privacy should consider.

Ecosia is a search engine with two main unique selling points

  1. Plant trees using the money made from search ads
  2. Private search engine that doesn't track its users

I'm going to focus on the privacy aspects but you can look into how much money went towards planting trees on their financial page.  Ecosia makes a number of claims on their info page about how it doesn't track its users nor does it build profiles.  It sounds good and looks sexy on a front page but when you dig a little deeper, questions start to arise about the validity of these statements.

So, should you use Ecosia if you care about privacy?

Claim 1

They claim that they don't create profiles but they follow that statement with an eyebrow raising sentence.  "We actually anonymize all searches within one week".

What this says is that they do indeed store your searches permanently and they do so non anonymized for a full week.

This is a problem not only because they store your searches tied to you for a full week but studies have shown that anonymous data isn't really anonymous.

They also just come out and say they save searches.

We also save the searches we receive to filter spam.
Claim 2

The claim is that they don't use Google analytics and other third party tracking tools.  Reading between the lines would suggest that since they didn't say they don't use any tracking, then there must be some internal analytics going on. Looking closer, this is the case.

We collect data and do statistical analysis to understand user behavior and trends, how people use our services, and to monitor, troubleshoot, and improve Ecosia.

While what they said is technically true, it's misleading as they do collect data on their users using their own internal tools.

Claim 3

This is a hallmark statement a lot of companies make to show they're serious about privacy but selling is not the only thing you can do with data.

We will never share your searches with anyone except services that are directly involved in answering your search request, like Bing.

Unfortunately, companies can share data with others, either directly or indirectly, and still say they told the truth because there was no monetary exchange.

On top of sharing your searches with Microsoft, Bing has your non anonymized searches and are subject to Microsoft's privacy policy, which is one of worst policies in the world.

Bing automatically anonymizes your Ecosia search history and unique identifier after 4 days. For more information on how Bing handles your data see their privacy policy.

And here's the info they sent to Bing in plain text before they anonymize it.

For example, when you do a search on Ecosia we forward the following information to our partner, Bing: IP address, user agent string, search term, and some settings like your country and language setting.

Back to the question at hand.  Should I use Ecosia if I care about privacy?  I think it's clear that while their cause is noble, using it with privacy as a priority is not recommended.

Want to join the discussion?  Check out this post, and others, over at the CupWire subreddit and leave a comment.