Blog Barista: Jonathan Nicholson | May 6, 2020 | Privacy & Security | Brew time: 7 min

There are many things that you can do to slightly increase your privacy in this digital age. A lot can be accomplished without being too extreme like swearing off all social media, self-encrypting all of your emails, and using Tor—a software tool for anonymous communication. Although it can still be difficult to make adjustments to your current internet habits, implementing little ways to protect and control your privacy can prove to be beneficial.  

In this post, I will address different digital areas where your privacy can be improved, whether it be in your email, web browsing, internet usage, search, or social media.

Controlling Your Privacy

Why should you care about your privacy, especially if you don’t have anything to hide? Well, there is a stark difference between having nothing to hide and allowing others to collect data that is out of your control, which could be used in ways that you wouldn’t approve. My goal for this post is to share with you how simple it can be to make your activities on the web a little more private and reduce any risk to your private information. 

Email 

As surprising as it might sound, Google used to scan your emails for content to be used in advertising and other purposes. Now, they say they no longer do this, but it comes down to trust and their ability to change their mind in the future. It also looks like Google may still be actively involved in this practice.

In the current digital age, it is probably better to trust the provider of your service as little as possible. That’s where the technology called “end-to-end encryption” comes in. In short, it garbles up your emails on your devices and stores them unintelligibly for the email provider and the only people who can actually make sense of the mess of 1’s and 0’s are you and whoever you’re sending the email to—no one in between (not even the email provider). 

One provider I recommend (and use) is ProtonMail, but there are others such as Tutanota that work in much the same way. Both of these providers make the encryption seamless and mostly transparent to the user. This is a huge advantage over manual encryption which involves sharing items known as public keys and using them to decrypt and encrypt emails you send and receive. Here is an example of the steps needed to encrypt messages using another provider called Thunderbird. The advantage with this process is that it will work with almost any email provider.

Web Browsing 

It is no secret that many of the big tech companies make money selling ads. They sell and personalize those ads using information gleaned from your browsing history. When you see those Facebook “like” buttons and Google “share” buttons, those are telling Google, Facebook, and whoever they care to share it with that you (a user logged into their service) have visited those pages. 

Other sites also store things in your web browser called “cookies” that can help them track you as an individual as well as your browsing habits, in order to form a more complete profile on what ads might pique your interest. One of the simplest ways to combat these practices is to install a browser that respects your privacy as well as a few browser extensions to block any attempts of tracking. 

Using Firefox with these recommended browser add-ons is a great way to make yourself significantly safer on the web. Brave Browser is another privacy-centric browser and, as a developer, is my browser of choice due to my familiarity with and preference for Google Chrome’s Developer Tools.

Internet Usage 

You might not think about this very often, but there are at least two entities who know what sites you are visiting on your phone at home—you and your internet service provider (ISP). For the most part, most companies will deny that they sell your browsing history, but Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon all say they use your browsing history for selling targeted ads

I, personally, do not enjoy the thought that what I search on the web can be used and sold in order to influence me in ways I cannot control. This is also worrisome because since they are selling those targeted ads, it means they have to keep a cache of all your browsing habits—for better or worse. It also means that your information could be hacked and leaked to third parties you’d rather not have that information. 

One way to combat the misuse of your information is to set up a virtual private network (VPN). Although a VPN was never intended for this purpose, it can hide which sites you visit from your ISP. If you set up a VPN on your devices, all your internet traffic will route through a single location. In other words, from the perspective of your ISP, it will look like you are visiting one, and only one, website. This practice comes with risks because now you are giving access to your internet traffic to another third party—the VPN provider. IF you can trust them, then you have little worry about, but malicious VPN providers do exist. 

VPN providers that I would recommend include ProtonVPN or Mullvad. I feel safe in recommending and trusting ProtonVPN because they have recently open-sourced all of their VPN apps and have undergone a third-party security audit. This means that not only has their code and infrastructure been audited by a professional service, but anyone is free to search for and report vulnerabilities. Mullvad has likewise undergone third-party security audits and is recommended by sites such as Wirecutter.

Search Engines

This one is easy. Large internet search engines like Google take what you perform searches on and give you personalized ads based on those searches. Therefore, I would recommend using DuckDuckGo or Startpage as your main search engine. Neither DuckDuckGo or Startpage track you or sell your information to third-parties. In other words, you don’t get creepy ads on Facebook the same day you were searching for something on Google. The difference between the two search engines comes down to personal preference as DuckDuckGo receives it’s search results from Bing while Startpage uses Google.

Social Media

It is well known that Facebook aggregates all your data, sells it, uses it, and misuses it. Unfortunately, the only solution would be to completely get off of Facebook. However, this is nearly impossible with how much of our lives are planned and shared on the platform, many of us for over a decade. For now, if you want to remain connected, you have to go where the people are, but that can mean sacrificing some of your privacy.  

There are little ways to avoid privacy issues with social media. I suggest that you visit your general and privacy settings on each platform. Depending on the platform, you can limit what becomes public or private, who can search for you, who can add you, etc. On Facebook, you can even change your Ad preferences. And it goes without saying, it would be wise to never share your personal information like addresses and phone numbers. 

But for those who don’t want to sacrifice any privacy, there are alternatives. They just aren’t as popular among the masses. Friendica and Mastodon are privacy-centric alternatives to Facebook and Twitter respectively, but a social network isn’t useful if the people you want to communicate with do not use it. 

Instant Messaging (Bonus) 

Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp are both inherently not “privacy honoring” due to their association with Facebook. One alternative is an app called Telegram. It isn’t owned by Facebook and is significantly more secure than Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. However, if you wanted complete faith that no one could possibly intercept your messages, Signal can provide that.

Protect Your Online Privacy 

Hopefully, you now see how easy it is to live a more private life on the internet. Will it be perfect? Well, no. The best way to maintain absolute privacy is to avoid using the internet at all, but that is not feasible or even possible for most people. What you can do is trade a little effort for a much higher chance that your data will remain just that—yours. With some adjustments to your email habits, your web browser of choice, and your internet usage, you can stop Big Brother from viewing everything you search for online and share.

If you’re looking to understand more about internet privacy, and how to increase your privacy habits, then I suggest looking into privacytools.io and Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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