Web Hosting Geeks posted an excellent guide to online privacy, encompassing various issues that we face today and going in depth on principles behind building security and privacy aware websites. It’s a great read for anyone and especially for bloggers or website owners.
However, after reading that guide, one question might spring to mind “How can you as an individual control and protect information that you share online?” This article will hopefully answer that.
We all know that whatever goes on the Internet, stays there forever. There’s no magical button that will completely eradicate your unwanted data from the face of the Internet. The best you can do is anonymize your activity, leaving little trace of your online presence.
With that in mind, below are the steps you can take and tools you’ll find useful to guarantee your anonymity online.
Safe Web Browsing
The Onion Router browser, or Tor Browser for short, acts as a sort of proxy service. Tor network bounces your connection between its globally dispersed servers before loading the website and encrypts the traffic, so it can’t be traced back to your computer. Originally, Tor was a worldwide network of servers used by US Navy and in 2004 it was released under free license to the public. Tor has further been developed by a non-profit organization founded by its creators, called Tor Project. Its main goal is to research, and educate people on Internet privacy.
Tor is probably the closest you can get to full anonymity; however, it does have some disadvantages. One of them is it can be rather slow, since Tor has to hop between 3 servers, it has an effect on loading speed. In the past, browsing with Tor was incredibly slow, and while it has come far in terms of loading time, you will still notice a slight difference compared to your usual browser. Moreover, there are websites that just block Tor connection or websites that won’t work properly with Tor.
Browser Settings and Extensions
In those instances, when you are forced to go back to your regular browser, you might want to tweak it to make yourself a little bit harder to track. Starting with your browser’s settings.
- Disable third-party cookies, this option is available in most browsers. Third-party cookies are mainly used for advertising purposes, and store identifying and tracking information.
- Enable “Do Not Track”. This option tells websites you visit that you do not wish to be tracked. However, it doesn’t mean that the website still won’t track your activity, since it’s a voluntary option and they do not have to obey it. But it’s better to have it enabled.
- It’s recommended to set up your browser to delete any cookies, history and cache after you exit. This will not only protect your privacy, but also free up some storage space.
- Opt out of any crash or health reports sent by your browser. While sent information is not particularly of sensitive nature, it can still be used to identify you.
- Make either DuckDuckGo or StartPage your default search engine. These search engines do not track or profile you.
Extensions allow you to take better control over privacy. Here’s a list of useful add-ons to install:
- uBlock (Firefox/Chrome)– blocks ads, so advertising companies can’t track you. It has numerous lists that block ads from different regions. Plus, if it just so happens that some ad goes through, uBlock allows you to manually block it.
- Privacy Badger – tries to combine the best adblocking and anti-tracking apps. It was developed with the thought of being easy to configure for non-tech people.
- PrivacySettings – an extension for Firefox that lets you effortlessly change the browser’s built-in privacy settings.
- HTTPS Everywhere – when installed this extension requests a SSL version of a website if available, meaning the connection will be established through an encrypted protocol.
- Decentraleyes – stores most commonly used website scripts and libraries locally, so your browser doesn’t connect to third-party servers (CDN) to do that, therefore improving your privacy.
There are many more privacy-focused extensions available, however before installing any, make sure to do your research. There have been cases where the extensions were sending your data to third parties. Like the Web of Trust situation, they were caught selling user data to other companies. Moreover, the data wasn’t anonymized properly, so it made users easily identifiable.
VPN stand for Virtual Private Network. The way it operates is by securely connecting you to a server run by a VPN provider, then all traffic that goes through the server is encrypted. This allows you to hide your IP address, as well as your location. Unless you’re using Tor, your ISP can see all the websites you visit and logs that activity, having a VPN prevents that. When choosing a VPN, make sure the provider doesn’t store any logs, and beware of companies providing VPN services for free, since most of the time it’s free for a reason and not a good one.
Email and Messaging Services
We all want to make sure that our private correspondence, stays just that – private. But going about making it so is not as easy, but you do have a few options.
- Use disposable emails such as GuerillaMail or 10minutemail, they create an account for you which later self-destructs when you no longer need it. This is a great way to avoid spam.
- Use the built-in webmail service in Tor Browser, however that still requires you to already have an email account.
- Use a privacy-conscious email host such as Tutanota, Austici or Posteo.
- Use Thunderbird with PGP (encryption software).
For instant messaging, desktop apps Pidgin or Adium support OTP encryption, they also can be integrated with Tor, and for phone apps you can take a look at Signal or Wickr. Telegram also offers an encrypted secret chat, but it has to be enabled.
On top of everything mentioned some recommend using operating systems that are focused on user privacy and security.
Tails is a live operating system usually booted from a USB drive or a DVD disc allowing you to run it on any computer. The OS forces any traffic to go through the Tor network, spoofs your MAC address and it’s designed to leave no trace of your activity.
Whonix is another option, it runs on two virtual machines, one runs Tor acting as the gateway and the other runs the OS and browser. This makes it theoretically impossible for your IP address to be leaked since the OS isolated from the Internet and it can only be accessed through the gateway. And unlike Tails, Whonix does keep your data (logs, browsing history, page files etc.)