Improving Your Internet Privacy
This article is designed to help average people improve their privacy whilst using the internet. I can't stress enough that this is not fool-proof. There are no guarentees. I take no responsibility for how this affects your browsing experience or your life.
The article is split into 3 sections: Easy, Medium, Hard. As the titles imply, each level trades improved Privacy for increased Hassle. The Easy list should have almost no impact on your browsing whatsoever. The Medium list requires a bit of setup and perhaps a small change in the way you interact with the web but the added burden should be managable. The Hard list includes techniques and software that I believe are outside the realm of what 95% of the population will be willing to put up with in the name of Internet Privacy.
Most of the software selections in this article are opensource. Opensource software is desirable because all of the code is available for anyone to download and look at. This means it is far less likely that the software does creepy things behind the scenes because, if it did, someone would have noticed it.
I've written a sister article that describes specific privacy breeches and ways to mitigate them. Check it out over here at Online Privacy Measures.
Everyone should take the steps listed below. These will have very little impact on your browsing habits but will assist in disabling several of the most common methods used to track your behavior online. I implement every suggestion listed below.
Startpage, DuckDuckGo, or IxQuick
- Search engines like Google and Bing keep track of everything you've ever searched for. Switch to one of these other browsers which promise to keep no logs of their own and foil Google and the others by aggregating search from millions of people. Startpage provides Google results, DuckDuckGo gets results from Bing & others, IxQuick provides results from everyone BUT Google. Try all 3 and pick your favorite. You can't go wrong!
- Switch to Mozilla Firefox for your web browser. Firefox is a well known and mature web browser that benefits from being opensource and not owned by Google. It also has a robust set of Addons that are key to improving your privacy online.
- Browsers like IE, Safari, & Chrome are "closed source" which means there is no easy way for individuals to audit the code to ensure that it isn't doing anything malicious. It is common for these browsers to send back data on what you are doing to their respective developers (Microsoft, Apple, etc).
- Installing the following Addons will do things like encourage encrypted network traffic and disable tracking systems
- AdBlock Edge
- This is an Ad Blocker which was derived (forked) from AdBlock Plus. AdBlock Plus kinda sold out to the man be defaulting to allowing Google Ads through.
- BetterPrivacy works to thwart tracking cookies. Tracking cookies are small files stored on your computer by websites you visit.
- Disconnect is a great addon that stops tracking from a wide variety of sources including Facebook, Google, & Twitter along with Advertising, Analytics and others.
- HTTPS-Everywhere contains a list of sites with secure conections available and tells your browser to use those secure connections when visit the unsecured version of their sites.
- Check out the Lockdown Facebook, LinkedIn, & Google section below for more detail on PrivacyFix.
- Change your DNS Lookup to use a free, non-log-keeping server supported by the OpenNIC project. This allows you to browse without having your ISP log every single website you visit via DNS Request Logging.
Lockdown Facebook, LinkedIn, & Google
- The simplest way to lockdown the Privacy settings of these sites is to use the PrivacyFix addon for Firefox (or Chrome, but by now you shouldn't be using Chrome!). The point of this is to allow your friends to see your activity but restrict, as much as possible, the ability of random strangers and external companies, to view & use your information.
- Install the Addon by following the link below and clicking the Big Red Button
- Reload the PrivacyFix website and follow the PrivacyFix instructions!
- After completing the steps you can keep it installed to use their "dashboard" or uninstall it. The settings you modified will persist.
What Info Are You Uploading?
- Typically your friends already know where you live, where you work, where you went to school. Do you really need to have this information plastered all over your page and in the database for Facebook to sell to Marketing Companies? Consider removing as much information about yourself as you feel comfortable getting rid of.
- How important is it to you that your friends know you are "currently at Starbucks!"? Using applications that have you check in with your location result in both individuals and corporations knowing your habits and routines. You can look at this from the Tin-Foil-Hat side and consider that people will be able to estimate where you are going to be in the future and what motivates you. You can also look at it on the micro-scale and consider that when you check-in at the Airport you are probably not going to be home for a few days, what a perfect time to rob your home! Consider uninstalling the Check-In type Apps and disabling the "Know Your Location" feature of Apps that have no business needing it.
- Be cognizant of what you share in your profile and on your wall. Is it important that everyone know everything there is to know about you?
These steps are a bit more aggressive and require a small change in the way you interact with computers and the web. They may take a little longer to get setup or have a steeper learning curve. However, after implmenting the changes listed below and getting used to the new systems you will find very little has changed regarding your capabilities on and offline. I run all of the suggestions below.
- Windows and OSX are closed source and when you use them you trust your privacy to Microsoft and Apple. Linux is a good alternative because many distributions are completely open source which means 3rd parties can vet the software and give you confidence that it is not gathering information about you and sending it back to Windows or Apple. In addition the culture of Linux is largely one of free as freedom and free as in beer. Therefore many of the tools and programs designed to work on Linux are inherently more privacy-centric (and often free!). Switching from Windows or OSX to Linux can feel a bit daunting. If you are a heavy gamer or you use a particular software package (that doesn't exist on Linux) heavily for your job or hobby this type of switch may not be for you. If you primarily browse the web and generate typical office documents (Word, Excel, Visio, etc) then you will probably find very good Linux alternatives to the software you typically use and a switch to Linux might be easier than you think!
- Not Ubuntu Ubuntu used to be my goto distribution. It was cutting edge and easy to use. Unfortunatly, Ubuntu has gotten too big for its britches and no longer respects its users as it once did. Ubuntu now comes with a "feature" turned on by default that is a user privacy breach. Using their new "Unity" interface any time you search on your own local machine a string is sent to Amazon to target ads to you. This basically means that Amazon knows everything you are requesting to run and all the files you search for on your own, personal, private machine. Therefore I cannot recommend using or supporting Ubuntu any longer.
- Mint Linux Mint is, essentially, the spiritual successor to Ubuntu. It is a Linux distribution that is designed to be very easy to use, just like Ubuntu, be the designer of Mint respect their users and their users' privacy. If you are new to the Linux world get this distribution.
- Fedora Fedora is a very popular Linux distribution that is aimed at a slightly more tech savvy audience. Fedora aims to be on the cutting edge of software development. The maintainers come out with a new version, roughly, every 6 months. This aggressive release schedule along with their commitment to the latest software keeps this distribution very up to date. If you are comfortable at a command line and enjoy the latest and greatest the Open Source Community has to offer, get Fedora. This is the distribution that I, personally, run on my machines.
More Firefox Addons
- RequestPolicy is an addon that prevents websites from loading content from other domains. This is especially useful in that it, by default, blocks most content and tracking attempts by advertisers as their code, typically, resides on their servers. The downside is the this, initially, breaks many websites as they often load legitimate content from an alternate source. This addon contains mechanisms to whitelist entire domains or requests from one particular domain to another. Like with NoScript, the pain level goes down as you whitelist the sites you frequent.
These changes are much more aggressive and will manifest themselves as serious lifestyle changes and/or will limit what you can do online. I don't expect many people to execute these options. I personally do not.