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Online Privacy Tips

December 30, 2017

I made this list to keep track of things I like and to share with people. Below are some quick and easy ways to enhance your privacy, along with further resources if you have more time:

Find a content/ad blocker

Avoid using Google Chrome on smart phones

iOS

Safari works with content blocker apps, but other browsers do not (yet). Firefox makes Firefox Focus, a basic content blocker to integrate with Safari. I prefer Adguard for it's custom settings and greater power. There's also a fantastic pro version of Adguard, allowing you to filter network traffic for other apps (and non-Safari browsers). This saves a lot of data and improves privacy. Good deal for only $2. The iPod Touch doesn't support content blocking. You'll need to edit your DNS, as explained below.

Android

Firefox browser with these extensions: uBlock Origin for tracking and ads, HTTPS Everywhere to improve security, and Decentraleyes for storing external scripts, saving data and marginally enhancing privacy.

Laptop

Try uBlock Origin for Firefox, or Google Chrome. For Safari, I'd try Ghostery, or check out their list of other options. Supposedly, you can compile uBlock Origin for Safari, but I'm too lazy to bother. Besides, the Firefox browser is excellent for speed and security. Give it a try! But if you really like Chrome, there's a free version called Chromium, and its settings respect your privacy better than Google's version.

Select a Domain Name Server

Your DNS will translate requests for a domain (duckduckgo.com) to a specific IP address (23.21.193.169), and this process reveals what sites you visit. Some servers are designed to protect your privacy, by encrypting your requests (with DNSCrypt) or by blocking certain categories of websites. This is useful when a site wants to deliver malware, track your internet activity, or display ads. Smart phones make thousands of network requests, and it's not easy to install firewalls or filter traffic without a good DNS. I recommend Adguard. For more information about DNS blocking, I wrote a blog post.

Restrict cookies to current website or 1st-party

iOS: Settings > General > Safari > Prevent Cross-Site Tracking

Other OS or browser: same general concept. Restrict the scope to only allow current sites, blocking surveillance from third parties. Privacy Badger is an extension that learns which websites track your activity when they appear on multiple other websites. However, a good ad blocker usually will block everything, and I find Privacy Badger to be redundant. Another cool extension is Lightbeam for Firefox, which graphs the websites you visit and the third parties that track you. Both of these extensions are not necessary for privacy, but they help you understand what's going on. And Lightbeam is pretty neat to explore. (It only shows data after you install it, so visit some frequent sites before checking the network graph).

Review location access

You might have apps continuously sending your location to advertising networks. Within iOS settings, a purple icon indicates apps that have recently used your location. If you haven't recently used those apps, they're spying on you. Decide if you're comfortable giving away a map of your life and realtime location. Consider changing your settings or uninstalling apps that disrespect privacy. And some apps will allow you to enter a ZIP code instead of using your precise location. I try to use websites instead of apps whenever possible, to save space on my phone and improve my privacy. Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are decently functional in a web browser and don't always require their apps to function.

Additional Steps

Use simpler versions of websites

You can visit a very lightweight version of Facebook, served from mbasic.facebook.com, which doesn't use any Javascript tracking. It's simple and fast. Not all features are available, but messaging, notifications, and groups work totally fine.

The old, HTML version of Gmail is also simple and fast. The design uses no Javascript, so it lacks modern features like instant messaging. But I find it quite nice and easy to use. The newest Gmail overhaul is very slow to load by comparison and offers me few improvements over the most basic one. Choose which version by visiting Google's support page.

Reddit also suffers from page bloat, but they have an old version, i.reddit.com, which is super fast and simple. I don't know of any privacy improvements, but at least the site is usable and small, unlike their default pages.

More powerful tools

uMatrix is an excellent tool for limiting website surveillance, but it's designed to be highly customized, taking time to setup. It will break some websites, but it gives you amazing control. (For simplicity, uBlock Origin is a good choice, made by the same developer).

Download the Tor Browser to browse the internet anonymously.

Check out TAILS, a small, efficient, privacy-focused operating system with encrypted storage

If you're curious about websites and user-tracking, here's a summary of the process, along with links for further reading.

When you visit a page, it generally contains external resources, like images, videos, advertisements, malware, javascript, etc. Your browser interprets the webpage and follows its requests, structuring everything into what you see right now. On my site, this CSS file changes the default appearance. Without it, page backgrounds are white, and links are blue. That wouldn't be a very pretty webpage, so we use tools to improve how websites look or function.

However, device features and web software are also being exploited for surveillance, theft, and other obnoxious behaviors, like promoting mobile app links, auto-playing videos, or embedding Facebook "Like" buttons on a news article.

In the past, there was no way to block pop-ups, but eventually browsers gave us that choice, because pop-ups were harming the experience online. Similarly, browsers are starting to increase protection and block annoying or disrespectful technologies today, prioritizing good experiences and user privacy.

But to go further, we need customizable tools for web browsers. Extensions give new features to a browser, like blocking specific companies that sell your private information. Those extensions act as gatekeepers, inspecting requests and deciding what should happen. They have filters with predetermined rules, but you can edit them when necessary. Apart from privacy benefits, using less data and saving battery life are two excellent reasons to consider browser extensions. Websites load more quickly, and the web experience is more pleasant.

As an example, if you're browsing kickstarter.com or other popular sites, requests are made in the background to Facebook, even though you didn't ask for Facebook. A blocker understands that kickstarter and facebook are different websites, so it can block those external requests while preserving core functionality.

To learn more about privacy, web surveillance, malware risks, and other fun stuff, here are some links I've enjoyed over the years:

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