Another day, another astonishing assault on people’s privacy. This time the proportions in the Cambridge Analytica scandal are properly epic. The company built 230 million psychological and political profiles using data harvested from Facebook without users’ consent. These profiles were allegedly used in manipulative social media campaigns during the referendum on Brexit and the last US presidential election.
The old adage: “if you are not paying for it, you are the product”, has never rung more true.
Is it time to give up your privacy rights entirely? I certainly do not hope so. In fact with this article, I want to show you ways to salvage some of your privacy while online.
Firefox: A Browser That Cares About Privacy
One of your main points of entrance on the Internet is your browser. As slick and fast as its browser is, Google makes no claim about protecting the privacy of its Chrome users. Mozilla is a not-for-profit corporation with a laudable mission.
Mozilla’s mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. An Internet that truly puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe and independent.
You can read the Mozilla Manifesto to learn more about the values driving this community. In it, you will find principle number 04 about security and privacy.
Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.
Mozilla’s web browser: Firefox is in service of Mozilla’s mission. I find its latest version, nicknamed Quantum, to be extremely nimble and readily believe Mozilla’s claim that its lighter and faster than Chrome on your computer.
In fact I would argue that once a browser is launched, it should disappear in the background to let you focus on the websites you are browsing. This is exactly what Firefox does for me. I have recently switched over (or to be perfectly exact, I switched back since Firefox used to be my default browser a few years back) and I have been very satisfied with the experience.
As soon as you install Firefox, go through its Settings (aka Preferences in Firefox lingo) and head to the Privacy & Security tab where you should enable Tracking Protection and send a Do Not Send signal.
This is not to say that I only use Firefox’s privacy protections. I typically customize my browsers with a few additional programs known-as add-ons or extensions. There are two extensions that I install right-away to block online trackers: Disconnect and uBlock origin.
Technology has evolved beyond cookies and it is becoming harder and harder to not be tracked while online.
First let me explain briefly how online trackers work. Perhaps you are already familiar with cookies. A cookie is small piece of information saved by your browser when you visit a website so it can remember you in a future visit. This may enhance your browsing experience by not asking you not to login every time you come to a webpage. Unfortunately it can also allow the site or third-parties affiliated to the site like advertisers to track you and deliver ads targeted to you. With an ubiquitous presence online, advertisers can then follow you while you are browsing the Internet and establish a rather precise profile based on your habits.
Technology has evolved beyond cookies. Flash an HTML5 cookies are more common now and also harder to remove. Additionally, the technique of device fingerprinting functions without the need for any cookies. It creates a unique identifier based on your browser’s configuration and settings. This also can be applied to track your smartphone, tablets or computers.
If you want to see online trackers in action, this amazing tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation will test your browser to determine whether it is safe against tracking: Panopticlick.
Block Trackers With Some Choice Extensions
The two extensions that I recommend, Disconnect and uBlock Origin are good first ramparts against tracking. They both block a majority of trackers and allow to clear out 4 of the 5 tests from the EFF’s Panopticlick. I install them alongside AdBlock Plus which I wrote about previously as a way to protect your privacy and AdBlock for YouTube which enhances your viewing experience on YouTube.
If you want to learn more and protect yourself, the Federal Trade Commission has a very detailed page about online tracking that I recommend you read.
Search Away From Prying Eyes
I recently watched the awesome movie Lady Bird with Jess. There is a really funny scene where the protagonist candidly asks her mom: “When is a normal time to have sex?”. Without skipping a beat, the mother responds with the obvious question: “You’re having sex?”
Lady Bird: “When is a normal time to have sex?”
Mom: “You’re having sex?”
This small humorous exchange brings to light the amount of information we voluntarily divulge to our search engines. In fact, I should probably use the singular here and say search engine, or call it by its name. With 74% of search market shares, Google Search knows almost everyone and can even use its knowledge to predict flu and dengue trends.
If you are still reading this article, you are probably ready to jump off the Google ship and wear some sunglasses while searching online. But can you really do without Google? If the answer to this question is a resounding yes, you could give Qwant a shot. Dubbed the search engine that respects your privacy, Qwant does not collect data about its users when they search. The unique design of this French enterprise additionally offers a welcome alternative to traditional search engines results.
What if you are not quite ready to give up the familiar feel of a Google Search? My friend Pete Rock was the first to recommend Duck Duck Go. A strong advocate of privacy, Pete highlighted to me the ease with which one can transition to Duck Duck Go; switch the default search engine in your browser and voila! It took me some time, but I make most of my searches in Duck Duck Go now and it definitely feels like a safer place.
Is Resistance Futile?
Internet started from a place of anonymity where no one knew you were a dog while chatting in IRC channels. It has now converged to a point where your identity is given away by your every movement: IP address, geolocation, shopping habits, email address, avatars, monickers, etc.
A bleak future might be staring us in the eye, that of a dystopian world where citizens are categorized between good and bad elements of society based on a predictive analysis. But before a data-focused social credit system is upon us, take a few tips from this page and salvage your privacy while online!
Do you have more tips? Let us know in the comment section below!