Searching for Uncle Jim
You Are What You Search
What is bitcoin
How to buy bitcoin
Can you infer anything from the above set of search requests? Privacy is an incredible influence on behavior, and the explosion of the internet opened up an entirely new way to search out and find things of interest. Topics that people claim no interest in or even disdain for in public could very easily show up in that same person's search request history, as people feel a much greater sense of privacy--and therefore freedom--when in the comfort of their own home. Searching what they are really interested in from behind a computer screen in a dimly lit room, without judgment from those around them, reveals their true thoughts and feelings, and may even be enough to actually infer their thoughts at the time or predict their actions in the future.
Since Google search engine accounts for over 92% of all search requests, a combination of algorithmic manipulation and totality of result control may lead to so-called "information bubbles" where user's beliefs are simply reinforced. "Google it" is part of our lexicon today, granting ever more power to the big tech oligarchs charged with delivering information to the public.
The algorithms used are nearly all proprietary functions, meaning as outsiders we do not have the ability to see the code and understand exactly what is happening on the inside--we have to take their word for it. We do know that Google scans and hashes every file uploaded to a Google service, then checks that hash against a database of "harmful" or "dangerous" content, and if a match presents then automatically forwards that information over to authorities. We know that the Department of Homeland Security scans the internet for a ridiculously vague list of words that could land a user on a terrorist watchlist. Google proponents would likely counter that the information collected when you perform a Google search has been anonymized, which is true to an extent. The information revealed about a user--including IP address, search keywords, and unique cookies placed for device identification--does become partially redacted; around 18-24 months afterward.
This is far from perfect, however, as was made glaringly obvious when in 2006 AOL released a list of over 20 million "anonymized" search requests. The problem? Well, by scrutinizing that data and the search keywords closely enough, deanonymization can be trivial in some cases. The New York Times actually performed this task, tracked down an individual, and asked if she had performed the related searches. It was her. AOL apologized and removed the information shortly after, but the damage had been done. The list had already been saved by many, available for detailed analysis indefinitely.
Turns out, people aren't actually "in the privacy of their own home" when performing basic internet searches. Not by a long shot. Just over your shoulder is a giant tech company harvesting every keyword, every IP address. Placing cookies identifying our devices slyly into browsers, scrutinizing search histories to be better able to serve up a properly placed advertisement at just the right position on the screen to get us to click. Determining what is allowed, and what should be censored. What happens then, if the keywords you are using to search out ideas or fellow travelers is deemed "dangerous"? Could you or your closest friends or family members not only share common beliefs, but also be sharing a common watchlist position? This is not hyperbolic, nor is it some kooky conspiracy theory. It is real, and it is happening right now wholly unknown to a giant swath of the world population. So what can we do?
Searching for Privacy
A daunting task, indeed. The stakes are raised significantly if a person happens to believe in individual rights and freedom, and therefore seeks out information on how to better achieve the goals associated with those beliefs. Your jurisdiction would likely weigh heavily on what sort, if any, response would be secretly triggered, but one thing remains the same--it is very unlikely that you, the searcher, would have any idea of such an investigation. Again I want to point out that I am not advocating for people to blatantly break the law, though I am a fierce proponent of the thinking that disobeying unjust laws is our duty as freedom and sovereignty advocates. There are several cases where Google searches have been used as evidence in criminal proceedings, and people committing atrocities should absolutely be held to account.
It's the people not committing atrocities, but rather simply wanting to be left alone to pursue happiness that concerns me. Individual rights and thought have quite simply never been under as severe of an all out assault as is happening right now. Rather than cower and conform, we can learn to protect ourselves and our loved ones by taking back this power in every possible area, hosting our own tools rather than relying on 3rd party providers which are ready and willing to coordinate and systematically stamp out individual resistance.
In the "Becoming Uncle Jim" series so far we have discussed self-hosting a Bitwarden_RS server for ourselves and close friends and family in an effort to stop the reuse of insecure passwords across services. Passwords protect our most sensitive data, and must be guarded with every tool at our disposal. Then we discussed self-hosting our own Nextcloud file storage cloud server, so that we and our friends and family could stop relying on 3rd party cloud storage providers to do it for us. These downloaded and shared files contain some of the most important and revealing data points about us and our associations, and cannot be left for big tech and/or government to peruse. And now today we discuss the next tool to self-host in order to begin removing revealing and personal data to these same institutions--it is time to talk about hosting your own search engine, made easy with Searx.
Trusting yourself means more than just believing in your abilities when dealing with these matters, it also literally means you can step-by-step begin transitioning to trust yourself to provide necessary services. Searx is an open-source, "hackable" metasearch engine able to be self-hosted, and can be added as a default in web browsers that support OpenSearch technology. What does this mean in plain English? It means you can become your own private search engine, able to scour the internet in the same fashion as you have always done. This time, however, you really can do it from the privacy of your own home.
Searx is referred to as a "metasearch" engine, as it has the ability to aggregate the results of several different standard search engines, depending on the user specific configuration. You get to decide if you see Google results, as well as DuckDuckGo, Wikipedia, Startpage, and others. This helps tremendously with finding information truly based on your search request, not on what a machine learning algorithm has determined you really wanted to ask about. Just give me the results of the keywords, please. In addition to this ability, Searx does an excellent job of looking out for its user's privacy. It accomplishes this goal in several ways, including keeping much more information locally rather than sending to a 3rd party provider.
No one wants to use a tool that adds too much complexity or diminishes the user experience greatly, which is why these large corporations always make the convenience plays. Luckily, Searx can be installed in a number of ways, ranging from installation packages to using Docker. My personal favorite, due to the simplicity and ease of use, is Yunohost.
I covered getting started easily in the VPS Hosting Made Easy With Yunohost post, and definitely believe this is a quick, simple, and effective way to accomplish this goal. Obtaining a domain name is easy and cheap enough using Namecheap, or can even be done using a default domain provided by Yunohost, though these domains offer much less versatility regarding DNS records. Bitcoin is accepted at Bitlaunch or other providers and can purchase you a Virtual Private Server to use in no time, without revealing personal information about yourself. (Edit: Do not use Namecheap for VPS hosting Yunohost, as there is a conflict which results in issues) The option exists to install Yunohost on your own hardware at home as well, however this opens up other areas of discussion and adds complexity when dealing with installation of a search engine. By using a VPS, you don't have to worry about your personal, home IP address being leaked or exposed to anyone. While there are certainly workarounds, this entire series is devoted to making things as simple--yet effective as possible.
Again see this article for detailed instructions on setting up your Yunohost user profile and for help with DNS records, which can also be found here or in your Yunohost administrator tool. One area not covered before that is relevant with Searx is using subdomains. The reason subdomains may be important for you here is that Chromium based browsers, like Chrome will only add sites without a path, meaning Searx must be stored on an actual domain.com, not added as a path on the end.
If you install Searx on the root domain of your Yunohost installation, you will not be able to install any other applications on that domain. Instead, navigate to your domain name provider, in this case Namecheap. Select the
Manage button near the domain you are using, then select
Advanced DNS. On the Advanced DNS page, in addition to the DNS configuration discussed in the above linked article, you will need to add a new
A Record. Simply choose
Add New Record, then select
A Record from the drop down list.
In the "Host" field, add the word you will use as a subdomain. An easy enough one to use is just the word
searx. This will appear in front of your root domain, so instead of
example.com you will be able to navigate to
searx.example.com. Next, in the "IP Address" field you will need to enter the same IP address being used for your root domain, in the form
Save Changes and you are done.
Now head back to your Yunohost admin interface, and choose the
Domains tab. Add the new subdomain you just created, then choose
Manage SSL Certificate.
You will see the button to add a Let's Encrypt SSL certificate is not active, but instead there is an available hyperlink to perform a mandatory diagnosis for the domain.
Click that link and allow the diagnosis to run. As long as you had everything configured correctly for your root domain, this will be fine as well. Once it is finished, return to the
Domain tab, select your
searx.domain.com domain from the list, then choose
Manage SSL Certificate once again. This time the button should be active, so select
Install a Let's Encrypt Certificate now, and HTTPS will be enabled on your Searx domain.
Once you are up and running and have created the domain to use, installing Searx is only a click away and takes only moments.
Before the final install, there is one more slight alteration you will need to make. By default, Yunohost will install your applications on paths in the domain you choose. As noted above, this would present a problem if attempting to add Searx search engine to a Chromium based browser, so instead you need it to install on the root domain. Select
searx.domain.com from the domain name drop down menu on the installation screen. The next line will detail the path on which to install, and will be auto-populated with /searx.
Simply click inside that path text line and remove the word
searx, leaving only
Once done, leave the box under the question
Should this app be exposed to anonymous visitors? checked as it is by default, and choose
Install. Yunohost will now install the application at
searx.domain.com/, and you will be good to go!
Now that you have a working YunoSearx metasearch engine installed and an SSL certificate in place, open your favorite web browser and visit the
searx.domain.com site you now have running. You will be greeted by the default YunoSearx home page, and can now take the time to configure it the way you like. Select the
Preferences link in the top right corner and you will be met with a plethora of configuration options for many different aspects of your instance, including theming.
The default theme for YunoSearx is
oscar, and it has the additional "Style" configuration available. Default style is called
Logicodev and is a light theme. As any self-respecting privacy and security enthusiast knows, dark theming is mandatory. You can select the "Style" area and choose
Logicodev Dark. It will not instantly change. This is because these default configurations are actually stored using cookies locally on your device, rather than on Google's servers.
Now you can take the time to configure several things if you like, but for our purpose the point is to keep everything simple. If you would like to dig deeper by all means do so--for now, we will stick to the basics. This means no need to configure anything else on this page, but instead select the link at the top to the
Engines tab. Choosing this will expose which search engines you would like your YunoSearx instance to aggregate results from and contains several options, some of which are on by default. Simply go through this list and toggle on/off any engines you do or do not want to use.
Note on the right side you will have an indicator of whether the language is supported or not, as well as an "average time" and "max time" to help you determine the most performative engines. Once finished there, go back to the top and select the
Plugins page. In my opinion the default selections made on this tab are sufficient, and so I do not see the need to make changes here, though that is totally up to you. That's the beauty of this whole thing ;)
Answerers page details for you the instant answering modules offered by YunoSearx, so no choices to make there.
Lastly, selection of the
Cookies tab should tell you there are currently no cookies defined, since you have not yet selected any of the configuration options you have changed. Now that you have finished, simply select the
Save button, and your YunoSearx instance should reset back to the default page, with your configuration options now saved locally.
Making It Official
Now that you are done with installation and configuration, all that is left to do is set your personal YunoSearx metasearch engine as the default in your browser of choice. Some mobile browsers may be tricky, so you will have to check if yours allows for adding new search engines from the settings menu. Chrome browser and derivatives may give you some trouble on mobile, but several other options are available for download if you would like to go that route, including Fennec or Brave browser, which is available for download in the App Store, the Play Store or using direct apk.
Adding your YunoSearx as the default engine on desktop browsers is easy as well, depending on which browser you use. On Firefox browser, it is as simple as visiting your
searx.domain.com, then choosing the 3 dots inside the address bar. A drop down menu will appear and offer the ability to
Add Search Engine.
Once you have added it, click the menu button in the top right corner of your browser window and select
Preferences from the drop down menu. Select the
Search tab on the left side of the screen, then scroll down a bit until you see your default search engine listed. Select that option shown and a drop down menu will appear with your YunoSearx instance available at the bottom to be made default.
Make that choice, then if you want to further configure you can scroll down a bit more and choose which search engines you do not want as search options. This isn't as necessary, but I went ahead and made the changes.
In Chrome or Edge browser, simply choose the 3 dots menu in top right corner, then select
Settings. Scroll down to Search Engines, select
Manage Search Engines, then select
Add near the bottom.
You will be asked to name your search engine, whichever name you decide to choose. Then you will be asked for a "keyword", which is not really necessary if you are going to set as default, but enter your
searx.domain.com in that field. Lastly you will be asked to define the url to be used. In this field, enter the full url of your domain, and then you will need to make some slight alterations on the end in order to properly fill the request.
So the entry must look like
https://searx.your.domain/search?q=%s. Once you have entered this exactly as noted (replacing 'your.domain' with your actual domain) choose save.
After saving simply select the 3 dots next to your added YunoSearx domain in the shown list and choose to
Make Default, also selecting your YunoSearx search engine to be used in the address bar on the main
Settings page. Visit here for instructions on other browsers if needed.
All That's Left Is the Doing
The thing stopping nearly all users from being orders of magnitude more private and secure in today's digital world is effort. We, as a society overall, have become accustomed to convenience being the primary driver of products and the leading factor in whether or not we choose to use those products. Nearly all more private and secure alternatives to the major digital services offered add friction to the experience or have such inferior results that they are basically useless. This is not really the case with the Bitwarden_RS server we installed first, in fact it actually adds to convenience by storing all your passwords in one secure location to be auto-filled. This is not really the case with the Nextcloud server we installed either, it is merely an alternative to Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. But is this the case with your YunoSearx search engine?
Again the answer is not really. Is it different in appearance? Sure, it doesn't look quite as flashy as default Google Search or even DuckDuckGo. What is truly important with this particular service, however, is the search results it delivers. It stands to reason since YunoSearx aggregates results from other search engines it should have a wide variety of results, but if you have large engines like Google and DuckDuckGo toggled on in the configurations those results will still be shown as well.
Let's take a look and see, shall we? One question that plagues us all--
What is bitcoin
Now let's look at the results. First from Google Search. Once past the snazzy, shiny objects, the top 3 search results are as shown.
Next up, DuckDuckGo. Display is a little different with this engine, but below would be considered the top 3 results.
And now for the moment of truth, how relevant are the search results using a self-hosted, privacy preserving YunoSearx search engine?
Now I could go into many more interesting and privacy preserving features of Searx, but I will leave it to you to learn about what the
cached link under the search results mean, along with other items. The fact that I can get virtually identical results from a search whether I use a self-hosted, privacy preserving search engine or a search engine that takes every opportunity it can to sneakily learn and store data on me to feed to a company that essentially despises me and my "dangerous" views on freedom--well, that's a no-brainer if I've ever seen one.
Your entire group of "fellow travelers"--be them close personal friends in "meatspace", family members, or a group of anons you met online and have built a relationship with--can now easily benefit from your actions of becoming Uncle Jim. You now have the ability to offer a fully private alternative to the big tech monopolistic grasp on search engine results by very simply having them navigate to a webpage and click a button, or at the worst add a url that you can feed them to copy/paste into their browser. It is essential that these tools are as easy to use as possible, while also achieving the highest level of results. As with Bitwarden_RS and Nextcloud before it, Searx manages this difficult task with surprising efficiency.
No more are we left to the whims of corporations which have openly declared their fealty to authoritarian movements and ideals. No more are we forced to live in fear, knowing the "privacy of our own home" does not extend to what we type in the search bar of a web browser. Does changing to a YunoSearx search engine "fix" digital privacy for you or your friends and family? No, of course not. There is no panacea. What can be done, however, is a systematic re-taking of every single hill that has been lost somewhere along the lines in this fight. And make no mistake, privacy is a human fight.
We take back the money, and you become Uncle Jim to allow those closest to you the ability to avoid relying on less trusted 3rd parties to validate their bitcoin transactions or provide their balances and addresses. We guard our most sensitive data using strong, secure passwords, and you become Uncle Jim to provide them with a server not run by a company that does not care for them the way you do. We store our most precious memory and files privately and safely, and you become Uncle Jim to offer up a server in which to do it, free from the prying eyes of Google and others. And now we take back the ability to seek out information on topics integral to freedom enthusiasts, with you becoming Uncle Jim in order to show them the results they are searching for without sending that data off to be mined and stored on servers of companies dedicated to the opposite goals.
You don't have to put off all these things and more another day. The tools are here. Now. Just waiting on the right motivated individual to pick them up and wield them with enough skill to protect themselves and those they care about around them. More than a saying; it is an entire mindset.