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01.23.20

Confirmation: System1/Startpage Offered Pay to People Who Pushed for (Re)Listing in Privacy Directories

Posted in Deception, Search at 5:54 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Pull request or pulling a stunt/fast one? Because we value privacy we shall name nobody in this article.

EPIC privacy

Summary: The debate is now settled; those arguing in favour of listing Startpage as privacy-respecting are in fact secretly ‘compensated’ by Startpage (in other words, they’re Startpage ‘shills’)

OVER the past few days we wrote a number of articles about Startpage and about mischievous things that it had done (except selling out to a surveillance giant, System1). We still prefer not to name any people, but we will, instead, present their confessions.

“An open admission, a face-saving PR, was issued by him half a day ago.”While communicating about the unanswered Startpage questions and delisting of Startpage someone was approached by Startpage.

An open admission, a face-saving PR, was issued by that someone half a day ago. That someone confessed only after being asked questions which that someone cannot answer and having repeatedly attacked those who asked these questions, sometimes with vacuous projection tactics, hence becoming too big a liability even to Startpage. It’s a total cock-up because of that. Here’s the full confession:

Alright, I want to address the comments on this pull request.

I am going to give a lot of detail here in the hopes of clarifying this.

When the System1 investment into Startpage went down and the CEO contacted both Jonah and I to help answer the questions the privacy community had. Through those discussions and subsequent emails about how Startpage could have better handled the situation and why the privacy community was so alarmed, it was revealed that my professional background is in marketing and communications. Coupled with my experience and knowledge in the privacy community, I was offered a meeting w/ some of the Startpage team.

That meeting led to them offering me a contract to do 2 things.

1. To write a handful of blog posts for their blog related to their search engine, but also to privacy in general. This is something I already do professionally as a columnist, blogger, and author. Guest blogging is nothing new to me.

2. To meet with their team as a consultant and share my marketing/communications/privacy related experience with them.

As a professional marketer and writer, this is what I do. I will not be a Startpage employee or on their payroll.

That’s it. Any compensation being given to me will be for these services, which are part of my professional expertise.

The moment I got off the call with Startpage, I alerted the PrivacyTools team about the potential offer and that I believed this could cause a conflict of interest and since this has not happened to any other member, I wanted to make them aware so we could decide how to best handle the potential conflict. Did that mean I would have to leave the team? I was not sure, but I was willing to do so if asked. The integrity of the site is important to me, regardless of my status as a team member. While we are still discussing it now, we all agree some guidelines should be put in place. I asked that the team not go public until we had internal discussions and that I was sure I was even going to accept or decline the offer.

When it comes to this pull request to relist Startpage, it should be noted that:

1. It is a PR in response to an issue opened by another team member who agreed that Startpage should be relisted based on the answers we got from those questions. The PR cannot be pushed live by me without multiple team member approval. This ensures that even if I had not notified the team of the pending contract, that I could not just re-list a service on my own. Not only would I have to convince them it was the right thing to do, but also the community. This is one of the great features of PrivacyTools.

2. The issue and PR predates the meeting I had with Startpage and I only created the PR to satisfy the issue, as you have seen done many times before on our Github.

Startpage has not asked me to relist their service even though I am sure they would love to be. What service wouldn’t want to be? It’s a fantastic resource privacy tools and is well respected by users, organizations, and companies.

I hope this helps clarify things.

The above is pretty significant for a number of distinct reasons. First of all, anyone who still defends Startpage can be more easily accused of being either a Startpage employee or someone who was offered money by Startpage (or courting Startpage for money).

We’ve covered similar examples over the years; Microsoft is a common culprit (rewarding people with jobs in exchange for OOXML advocacy, among other things).

In the above case, it took a lot of pressure to extract the confession. “The offer could be an attempt to influence the relisting,” one person told us, “or it could be very bad judgment on the part of Startpage/System1.”

Regardless of this judgment, and irrespective of the listing, the above person was putting Startpage as a top pick for a search engine (at the same time). Is this a marketer? Seems so…

At the time the person was suddenly retweeting Startpage tweets.

Lastly, the person suddenly changed the business model and the title to “privacy consultant.”

This brings to mind this quote from Microsoft [PDF]: “”Independent” consultants should write columns and articles, give conference presentations and moderate stacked panels, all on our behalf (and setting them up as experts in the new technology, available for just $200/hour).”

We still don’t know just how much money was offered.

Fake privacy isn’t “consultation” but corruption of groups. Thankfully this one managed to call out the mole before its reputation was harmed severely.

“Why aren’t so-called private search engines DuckDuckGo or Startpage offered in Epic? Why are you unable to trust them?”Epic Browser

01.21.20

Startpage/System1 Almost Definitely Pay for People to Lie About Their Surveillance

Posted in Deception, Search at 11:26 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Startpage/System1 lacking a sense of humility. They even exploit MLK, whom the FBI spied on very heavily (this is well documented) until his death.

Startpage/System1 on MLK

Summary: A longterm investigation suggests that there are forces in the debate that aren’t objective and are being super evasive and dodgy; this typically happens only when somebody has much to hide

AS WE pointed out in two separate articles recently [1, 2] (lots of research went into them, even if they’re short) Startpage is going very dark, very malicious. It’s still a surveillance company disguised as a privacy-respecting shelter. It spends a lot of money on media campaigns (to maintain the ‘cover’). System1 is a very large “Sugar Daddy”, so it can spare a buck or two (or even a million bucks) to glue/affix/attach some false labels. This has gone on for more than a year and the cover was secured for nearly a year.

“It’s still a surveillance company disguised as a privacy-respecting shelter.”Having inquired and reached out to people, including those whom we suspect to be working for Startpage/System1 (no response since we last mentioned it two days ago), we almost must conclude that there’s a business relationship. Its nature, however, is unknown to us (courting, employing, contracting). There’s an opportunity for the accused to issue a response; but they don’t exercise the right of defense. Does that mean there’s no valid defense? Running away is not a potent form of defense.

We suppose our readers now wonder, who is this all about and what was it all along? There are clues in our IRC channels, but not names… (we often redact names in the pursuit/interests of privacy).

“People who believe they enjoy discreetness online are in fact spied on by a surveillance giant. In some contexts or in oppressive nations this can lead to death.”Well, we don’t wish to name the culprits or divulge the proof just yet (as the names would inevitably become apparent). We are definitely not done and we shall ‘drill on’. Eventually, the whole world needs to know what Startpage (or StartPage or ixquick) became. As a former user — for about half a decade! — I have much at stake too. I know a lot about this company. As they’re pouring money into disinformation campaigns it is growingly important to refute them. People who believe they enjoy discreetness online are in fact spied on by a surveillance giant. In some contexts or in oppressive nations this can lead to death.

01.19.20

StartPage (System1) Found New Spin Allies. Some Have Been Offered StartPage Jobs. Some Might Already be Working for StartPage in Secret.

Posted in Deception, Search at 2:47 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

When you have critics and you pay people to discredit them, what does that make you?

StartPage gifts
From StartPage with love

Summary: Pro-StartPage voices appear to be paid (or have been promised pay) by StartPage; the key strategy of StartPage seems to be, attack and betray people’s privacy while paying people in particular positions to pretend otherwise

IT HAS been a while since we last touched the StartPage saga and little has changed. StartPage is still owned/controlled by a surveillance company and it is trying to muzzle/squash/discredit its critics.

“At this moment in time we do know for a fact about the conflict (some are more upfront about this than others), but we just don’t know the full extent of it.”Based on our understanding, as well as evidence we have but cannot divulge at this time, StartPage made job offers to people who are in a potential position to relist the company in privacy sites. In a sense, they’re trying to pay their way into re-acceptance, without disclosing pertinent details. It’s possible that some of these people are already on StartPage’s payroll because they refuse to answer very simple questions.

At this moment in time we do know for a fact about the conflict (some are more upfront about this than others), but we just don’t know the full extent of it. This corrupts or at least erodes trust in groups which claim to advance privacy agenda. If they receive money from surveillance companies, what does that tell us about them? Maybe some time soon we’ll be able to publicly name the culprits, too.

12.18.19

Fuzzy Logic and Personal Attacks: How Startpage Guards Its Image After Becoming a Surveillance Company

Posted in Deception, Search at 1:26 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Don’t worry, buddy, System1 already has you ‘backed up’

Startpage lie
One of many “sponsored” tweets (promoted for a fee) that spread lies and misinformation

Summary: Startpage assumes that its users have bags for brains; it continues to shamelessly lie about Startpage’s data flows, which ‘inadvertently’ reveal what users are searching for (an advertising company that owns most if not all of Startpage deciphers identities)

The Startpage saga has come to a phase of personal attacks or ad hominem tactics. They try to personify the issues and create a phony ‘personal’ controversy. Seeing that System1 turned Startpage into a surveillance site/company (perhaps fully owned or almost fully owned by System1), now there’s a deflection and blame game. They attack the messengers, using innuendo of course, and pretend to be the victim (playing the victim has always been a classic strategy). Perhaps this is expected when one’s “side” in a debate isn’t supported by facts. We don’t want to name any names or link to the personal attacks, but they’re out there. There’s suspicion that some act as ‘proxies’ of the accused. Heck, some are literally employed by the accused!

“After persistent pressure they admitted it, but they claim to preserve anonymity (those who have followed many scandals since the famous AOL scandal are aware that de-anonymisation is almost always very easy — there’s a body of scholarly work to that effect too).”Our investigation of this matter will of course persist. We already know (it’s confirmed by the accused) that data is being passed from Startpage to System1 for advertising purposes. After persistent pressure they admitted it, but they claim to preserve anonymity (those who have followed many scandals since the famous AOL scandal are aware that de-anonymisation is almost always very easy — there’s a body of scholarly work to that effect too).

This is an area I deal with at work. Here’s what readers might want to know about data anonymisation, data re-identification, de-identification, and k-anonymity. Andrew Orlowski wrote about such issues more than 13 years ago in “AOL publishes database of users’ intentions” (it even made it public! It did not just pass it to advertisers!).

Pseudonymization is a suitable term here. As Wikipedia puts it: “The pseudonym allows tracking back of data to its origins, which distinguishes pseudonymization from anonymization, where all person-related data that could allow backtracking has been purged. Pseudonymization is an issue in, for example, patient-related data that has to be passed on securely between clinical centers.”

“Must there be some kind of identifier in order to have System1 process data for Startpage that gets back to a user?”

One reader asked us that. We used to recommend Startpage, so we suppose some of our readers still use it and are now rightly concerned. “It might not be an IP,” our reader continued, “maybe an IP substitute? This is a generic question.”

There’s lots more to go by, including cookies and additional data that is passed around recklessly by so-called ‘data brokers’. It’s a vast and very shady ‘industry’ — a so-called ‘industry’ in which System1 is a prominent player.

“Stay away from and keep a distance from Startpage. They’re liars and charlatans, pretending to value privacy whilst actively betraying it.”“I am also not clear as to how Startpage can hand even anonymised or fuzzed data to a behavioral ad company like System1 for processing,” our reader continued. “Wouldn’t that need to be divulged in the Startpage policies? Maybe the privacy policy is actually accurate because technically Startpage itself is doing what it says and doesn’t mention what other organisations might do or what organisations it might share data with?”

Yes, that’s a known loophole. With GDPR care is taken to ensure third parties aren’t leveraged as loopholes — means by which to bypass the law or outsource/offshore the abuses. That has happened a lot.

“I reached out to another computer expert,” our reader noted, “and got a plausible explanation for how System1 might process Startpage data without getting user personal info and then get it back to the user.”

It’s really unhelpful that Startpage has been so facetious about it; it also should be considered a major breach of trust that Startpage gave in to System1 about a year ago without telling anyone (until it came up with this ridiculous spin). There’s no ‘Privacy One Group’; it’s like an offshore account/shell. Stay away from and keep a distance from Startpage. They’re liars and charlatans, pretending to value privacy whilst actively betraying it. They think they’re being clever about it with their shameless marketing campaigns, but geeks aren’t gullible enough to fall for “sweet talk”.

12.16.19

Startpage and System1: Lying for Almost a Year and Nowadays Making Things Personal/Ad Hominem (Shooting the Messengers)

Posted in Deception, Search at 5:17 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Startpage and its apologists have become abrasive and aggressive, just like spies

Startpage tweet
A surveillance company advises people to keep “personal information private!”

Summary: As more people become aware of what a scam Startpage is (and has clandestinely been for nearly a year) the strategy seems to be further obfuscation and even personal attacks (demonising the critics/exposers)

THE TWITTER feed of Startpage is good for eye-rolling. It’s a lot like the NSA’s. They say they value security and privacy, but in practice they undermine both, for gain.

For quite some time Startpage attempted to keep secret the System1 transaction. Later they came up with some fictional “Privacy One Group” to ‘come clean’. That didn’t go too well, did it? As one site put it a month ago, “Who owns Startpage now?”

“They say they value security and privacy, but in practice they undermine both, for gain.”“The exact answer to this question is not entirely clear,” it says, “and it seems that is intentional.”

“Also concerning is that the Privacy Policy of Startpage makes no reference to the new ownership structure and continues to suggest it is strictly a Dutch company,” it adds.

Also it says: “There is no mention of System1 or the Privacy One Group, the members of which now hold an “important stake” in Startpage. Questions about the exact ownership structure have gone unanswered, aside from general statements.”

“For quite some time Startpage attempted to keep secret the System1 transaction.”On “Privacy One Group” it says: “While some are suggesting that this entity may be just a facade of privacy for the parent company System1, I’m not going to speculate. Ultimately, we don’t know much about the company – and neither Startpage, nor System1, nor Privacy One Group are offering these details.”

Further down it adds: “So here we have an investor from New York and the co-founder of System1 sitting on the board of directors for Surfboard Hoalding BV, the parent company of Startpage. Ian Weingarten is currently the CEO of System1 and Robert Beens is the CEO of Startpage.”

About timing: “Also notice that this change happened on December 31, 2018. Yet Startpage’s leadership did not make any announcement of this change until October 2019, where they described it as a “most recent” change. I do not think that a nine-month delay is a “most recent” development.”

The author, Sven Taylor, concluded with this: “At the end of the day, an American ad-tech company that seeks to “gather as much data as possible” is still the majority owner of Startpage, a search engine that could be used to collect data.”

“We’ve meanwhile noticed Startpage and its apologists smearing their ‘opponents’, mocking articles that unmasked the surveillance because the articles aren’t in sites with encrypted connections, and not justifying decisions to relist surveillance sites in so-called ‘privacy’ directories.”That was a month ago and a lot has happened since then, including what we called lobbying by the CEO earlier this month. Martin Brinkmann, a GNU/Linux proponent, wrote about that 3 days later, also with the face-saving PR of Startpage. Did that work? Seems so. “The whole situation could have been avoided if Startpage would have been transparent about the deal,” Brinkmann concluded. “The publication reveals critical information about the deal and should reassure some users. Others may require additional information or clarification, e.g. whether data is shared with Privacy One Group Limited or System1.”

That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Consider how dishonest these people have been all along and for so long (until they got exposed, whereupon it wasn’t possible to hide anymore).

We’ve meanwhile noticed Startpage and its apologists smearing their ‘opponents’, mocking articles that unmasked the surveillance because the articles aren’t in sites with encrypted connections, and not justifying decisions to relist surveillance sites in so-called ‘privacy’ directories. We don’t want to link to these accusations (we’ve kept record and stock of these), which tend to be personal attacks that are substance-free. Startpage becoming as aggressive and as dishonest as spying companies may in fact be expected and predictable. After all, Startpage was bought by one and is now bossed by one.

12.06.19

Startpage CEO Robert Beens in ‘Damage Control’ Mode, Trying to Get Startpage Relisted After Selling to a Massive Surveillance Company

Posted in Deception, Search at 4:26 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

“Hard to believe that privacy advocates are giving a pass to System1, but money talks.”

Robert BeensSummary: PrivacytoolsIO is being lobbied by the CEO of Startpage to relist Startpage, based on no actual refutations at all

THE SAGA continues. System1 is starting to realise that its ‘investment’ in (i.e. purchase of) Startpage may have scared away otherwise-privacy-conscious users.

We’ve been tracking their steps, expecting something to be done in addition to lies and deception.

It didn’t take long.

According to Crunchbase, “Robert is CEO of StartPage/Ixquick and oversees all company aspects including operations, product development, technology and finance. He has a special interest in consumer Privacy. He earned his Master’s degree in Corporate, Social & Economic Dutch Law from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.”

“We’ve been tracking their steps, expecting something to be done in addition to lies and deception.”Well, he may be going by the title of “CEO” (still), but his bosses are “an independent marketplace for keyword pay-per-click advertising. Its platform analyzes billions of consumer attributes and uses “pre-targeting” algorithms to unlock and fulfill consumer intent across channels including social, native, email, search, market research, and lead generation.”

Nice, isn’t it?

Why would PrivacytoolsIO even consider listing Startpage as a recommendation now? A cynic might think that something was offered in exchange for relisting. Just verbally maybe?

“A cynic might think that something was offered in exchange for relisting.”“Hard to believe that privacy advocates are giving a pass to System1,” a reader of ours said, “but money talks.”

“PrivacytoolsIO de-listed Startpage and is now discussing re-listing at GitHub” (conversation here).

Putting aside the disturbing fact that PrivacytoolsIO uses the privacy-violating GitHub, what does this whole thing say?

One of them said, “I recommend re-listing, maybe we a add a flag about ownership w/ a link to their support page.”

“Does Startpage respect privacy? Based on what?”This hogwash? Seriously? The surveillance company is talking about itself. It’s not even an outside audit.

Does Startpage respect privacy? Based on what? And watch the reply: “Thank you Jonah and Dan for starting the conversation to re-list Startpage on PrivacyTools. As you can see from the information we provided, we are committed to being transparent about our business and privacy practices.”

Nonsense. What transparency? The only thing they want ‘transparent’ (spied on) is the users. As we covered before (see Startpage wiki page), they’re secretive, misleading and incredibly facetious. Relisting Startpage, giving all that is known, would merely discredit PrivacytoolsIO as an authority on privacy. If they relist, it’ll bode rather badly for PrivacytoolsIO itself.

“What transparency? The only thing they want ‘transparent’ (spied on) is the users.”JonahAragon said: “the unsourced quotes in this post were from a letter shared with @danarel and myself from the Startpage CEO.”

That also said (same page): “I dislike how this information was not communicated from the start, but ever since I have had no trouble communicating with them regarding these issues. I would probably be fine with relisting them as a search engine provider at this time.”

“But hey, if that’s good enough for PrivacytoolsIO, then I’ve had enough of PrivacytoolsIO.”“From another reply, we know that Privacy One Group is a majority shareholder (51%+),” they noted. Well, that can be 99% or more. They refuse to say how much.

But hey, if that’s good enough for PrivacytoolsIO, then I’ve had enough of PrivacytoolsIO.

11.26.19

Startpage Looks Like It’s AstroTurfing — With Payments to Twitter — in Order to Boost the False Perception of ‘Privacy’

Posted in Deception, Search at 5:02 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Summary: AstroTurfing for a fee; is this what Startpage — once known for respecting people’s privacy and dignity — has been reduced to now that it is seemingly bossed by a surveillance company (it refuses to address the subject)?

OUR Startpage wiki page, which we started some weeks ago, documents our findings about the sell(out) of Startpage — a search engine we’ve used and recommended for years. It had been fine until it got sold (at least a majority of it). We’ve taken a look, over at Twitter, at all the ads currently shown [PDF]. They actually pay Twitter a chunk of money to pretend they’re still privacy-respecting. How much money? It’s hard to tell, but there’s a budget dedicated to this lie. Does System1 foot the bill?

“There’s almost no comment of substance there except Startpage staff commenting/replying to self/ves.”“Apparently,” one reader told us, “Startpage ran a Twitter ad recently to boost its image. See the one with all the likes and retweets about the “Big News”?”

Here it is:

Startpage spam

There’s something ‘wrong’ about the number of ‘likes’ compared to follow-ups’. Click-farming activity? Comments like “Nice tweetThanks for sharing” do make one wonder and one calls it “big spam”. There’s almost no comment of substance there except Startpage staff commenting/replying to self/ves. This kind of AstroTurfing-esque pattern does raise suspicions. It can’t be good for Startpage’s image. They’re not trustworthy anymore.

11.19.19

Startpage is Not Denying Its Betrayal of Privacy, It is Just Being Evasive

Posted in Deception, Search at 5:16 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

If you cannot deny it, you will just change the subject

Summary: They can’t call you a liar if you issue a non-denying ‘denial’; the “Roll Safe Think About It” meme seems applicable here

THE series about Startpage has been somewhat of a Techrights ‘exclusive’ and it leads us to identifying other surveillance culprits that mask themselves as the complete opposite. We must call them out because they put at great risk those who wrongly assume anonymity etc. In some countries this can lead to assassination, death penalty etc. This is no laughing matter or a luxury or a “first world problem”; it’s a profoundly critical issue and a matter we’ll write more about.

“They sent me the same ‘waffle’. They don’t actually deny anything.”“We received a very general response that did not address key questions,” PrivacyTools wrote last week. There have since then been a number of comments. Startpage/System1 people are still trying to evade answering questions directly, fully and transparently.

“On the 15th of October,” PrivacyTools said, “it was brought to our attention that Startpage.com was reportedly (partially?) taken over by a company called the Privacy One Group, which is in turn owned by a company called System1. We found this quite remarkable as the two companies seem to have conflicting business models. Startpage has been known for basing their advertisements on what their users enter in their search bar. System1 on the other hand, is a pay-per-click advertising company that “has developed a pre-targeting platform that identifies and unlocks consumer intent across channels including social, native, email, search, market research and lead generation rather than relying solely on what consumers enter into search boxes. We reached out to System1 CEO Ian Weingarten for an explanation. We received a very general response that did not address key questions.”

As before. They sent me the same ‘waffle’. They don’t actually deny anything. All these ‘prepared’ and reused statements are similar to those we hear from Andrew Saxe Coburg Gotha in his BBC interview.

“Seemingly prompted by our ongoing concerns,” PrivacyTools continued, “Startpage released a public letter addressed to us from their CEO, and hosted a Q&A on their Subreddit to try and explain the situation. While some of our questions were answered, we noted that the company seemed to be evasive, essentially restating information from a previously published blog post or posting the same response to different questions. People had to really dig to get answers and puzzle all information together, instead of getting a clearly explained and comprehensive answer from the start. Requests for clarification to some important questions went ignored.”

The issue has meanwhile been mentioned by other sites. “Privacytools.io delists Startpage from its list of privacy tools and services,” said one such site. “Startpage had been taken over by Privacy One Group, which itself is owned by System1. System1 is a targeted advertising company with a business model that seemed—to many—to be in conflict with Startpage’s own privacy-centric model.”

Notice what Dan Arel wrote in the comments: “You raise some of the best points I have heard about this statement by them. It’s amazing how they somehow manages to leave us with more questions, not fewer.”

One has to conclude that they have no potent response/clarification/rebuttal/defense. Among the arguments: “If we know that System1 has a “majority ownership of Startpage” — a legal definition meaning more than 50% — do the specific percentages still matter?”

The proportion must be rather high; if it wasn’t, they’d just say what it is (openly).

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