Online Privacy Tips
Updated . First published .
I write about my favorite privacy resources, starting with easy things and gradually introducing more complex tools if you have extra time to read and tinker with software. I'm happy to help answer any questions - visit my contact page to get in touch.
Install a content/ad blocker
Avoid Google Chrome, especially on smart-phones, because you can't block advertising and other data-collection. Find alternatives to all Google products at No More Google or browse other options at De-google-ify Internet.
All iOS browser apps use Safari as the underlying software, but with a different layout or logo. If you use "Chrome" on iOS, you're really just using Safari with the Chrome logo, so there are no technical improvements, and Google collects your personal data for ad-targeting and surveillance. Stick with Safari, and install a content-blocker app, like Firefox Focus. I prefer Adguard for its custom settings, or for $2, there's a fantastic pro version of Adguard, which filters wifi and cellular data for all apps, saving data and improving privacy. The iPod Touch doesn't support content blockers yet, so you'll need to edit your domain name server (DNS), as explained later on this page.
Install the Firefox browser, then add these extensions from inside your new browser.
For a laptop
Install uBlock Origin for Firefox or Safari. Google plans to disable powerful ad-blockers in Chrome, so uninstall their crap browser and try something else. I've written a more detailed article about securing your browser on The Linfield Free Press.
Select a Domain Name Server (DNS)
When you visit a website, your DNS translates the domain name, like duckduckgo.com, into a specific IP address, in this case 184.108.40.206. Your phone connects to the given address and downloads the webpage. Some servers, like Adguard, improve privacy by encrypting requests or blocking websites that deliver malware, track your behavior, or slow down your phone. Changing your DNS is simple and shouldn't require installing any software, though certain Android phones are exceptions. For more information about DNS blocking, I wrote a blog post.
Add these Adguard servers to your wifi's DNS settings, available in your system settings. It's easier to select one at a time, since you can't paste both in a single address line. You'll have to edit each wifi network, but their pro version for iOS or a simple DNS changer app for Android will eliminate the inconvenience and also filter your cellular network, saving mobile data.
Block 3rd-party cookies
iOS: Settings > General > Safari > Prevent Cross-Site Tracking
Other browsers: same general idea - try to block as much as possible without breaking necessary sites. You can always add exceptions to important sites, but retain strict rules for unimportant sites. 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. Disconnect is another cool extension. Lightbeam is pretty neat to explore after browsing for a couple days. It only shows activity after its installed, nothing before.
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 function with a ZIP code instead of needing 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 very functional in a web browser, with only some features like Live Streaming requiring an app.
Try simpler versions of websites
i.reddit.com, a retro design for early smartphones that is fast and simple. I don't know of any privacy improvements, but at least the site is usable and small, unlike their modern, slow website.
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.
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:
- Privacy Tools - comprehensive list of resources
- EFF Security Tools
- No boundaries for user identities: Web trackers exploit browser login managers
- LA Times and ads
- CBS's Showtime caught mining crypto-coins in viewers' web browsers
- What Vizio was doing behind the TV screen
- How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist
- Get your loved ones off Facebook.
- Browser Fingerprint Test
- Now sites can fingerprint you online even when you use multiple browsers
- What every Browser knows about you
- to be continued...