An Introduction To Online Privacy Tools: Part 1

by Justin Thomas •

There are many reasons to seek privacy on the internet. These days, we have ISPs monitoring our connections, corporations tracking and consolidating our information across multiple websites. We have governments and other institutions routinely monitoring our internet activities. We have hackers, identity thieves and criminals attempting to access our computers and steal our personal information.

Basically, internet privacy should be of interest to everyone. Even if you feel you have “nothing to hide” you probably still value having curtains on your windows, or not having your credit card statements available for anyone to read. Likewise, most people are not comfortable with having every email they write and every web site they visit being broadcasted to the public.

Overview

In this series of articles I’ll be covering the following topics:

  • Making your web browsing private
  • Installing a VPN or “Virtual Private Network”
  • Securing your computers and wireless network
  • Encrypting your email and instant messages

These are basic secure measures — something everyone should have in place before they go online.

Install The “HTTPs Everywhere” Browser Extension

Why you’d want to do this:

  • To stop eavesdroppers tracking the sites you visit
  • To stop eavesdroppers monitoring the information your send via HTTP

The HTTPs Everywhere is an extension for the Firefox and Chrome browsers, made by the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. It encrypts your communications with many major websites, giving you a basic level of web browsing privacy. For example, if you are reading email in Gmail or Hotmail, your email messages will be encrypted before they are sent to your web browser. Similarly, an eavesdropper won’t be able to detect what Wikipedia articles you are reading, or what items you are purchasing at an online store. However, this is true only for the websites that HTTPs Everywhere supports, and only for the parts of those websites that support HTTPs connections. Here’s a raw list of the sites they support.

Note that HTTPS Everywhere does not conceal the identities of the sites you access, or the amount of time you spend using them. For example, an eavesdropper can tell you accessed Wikipedia for an hour, but they won’t be able to see which particular articles you read on Wikipedia.

Install The “Ghostery” Browser Extension

Ghostery is a browser extension that blocks the “invisible” web. It detects trackers, web bugs, pixels, and beacons placed on web pages by Facebook, Google Analytics, and over 1,000 other ad networks, behavioral data providers and web publishers.

I like Ghostery because it’s a “set and forget” add-on  — Ghostery will continue to work silently in the background as you browse, removing all those undesirable tracking elements in web pages. I prefer to turn off the notification the blocked elements (you can find this option in the Ghostery preferences).

Use A Search Engine That Doesn’t Log Your Searches

Why you’d want to do this:

  • To stop search engines logging and storing your searches
  • To stop web sites and other corporations from collecting and selling your personal information

Many popular search engines like Google and Bing, save your search history. Typically, your searches are saved along with some information about your computer (e.g. your IP address, User agent and often a unique identifier stored in a browser cookie), and if you are logged in, your account information (e.g. name and email address).

With this information, your searches can be tied together. This means someone can see everything you’ve been searching, not just one isolated search. You can usually find out a lot about a person from their search history.

They also put cookies on your browser to uniquely identify you. For example, when you search for something private, you are sharing that private search not only with your search engine, but also with all the sites that you clicked on (for that search). See this page for more info.

If you want to avoid this tracking, you can make use of search engine that take privacy seriously, like StartPage or DuckDuckGo.

I like StartPage by Ixquick because they incorporate search results from Google. Startpage removes all identifying information from your query and submits it anonymously to Google. They get the results and return them to you privately. StartPage also includes a free web proxy, which can open sites anonymously for you.

Ixquick’s Privacy Policy is routinely being confirmed by two independent organizations — Europrise and Certified Secure.

DuckDuckGo is another good search engine with a focus on privacy. Like StartPage, DuckDuckGo and does not record user information — see their privacy policy for the details.

Configure Your Web Browser For Privacy

You can easily adjust your web browser to enhance your privacy. You can turn off third-party cookies — these are cookies that are sent to advertising firms. Turning off these cookies just means you’ll be tracked less — it won’t affect your browsing ability. I prefer to turn off cookies completely, and use the Cookie Whitelist add-on to only accept cookies from specific sites that I log into.

You can install a extension like Adblock Plus (Firefox, Chrome) to block ads, thereby reducing the amount of information collected by advertisers.

You can turn off Java and Flash in your browser (both can be a security risk — see an explanation here).

You can install an extension like No Script (Firefox only), which stops web pages loading and running Javascript, Java and Flash. Using No Script can be tedious but it protects against attacks like Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) and Clickjacking (a trick that causes you to click and run a malicious program).

Use A Password Manager

It makes sense to use password manager like LastPass, KeePass or 1Password. Password managers allow you create strong, unique passwords for each website you log into. Also, Password Managers can automatically log into websites for you, which prevents key-logging (attempts to capture your keystrokes and hence your passwords). LastPass and KeePass are free and are both good programs. 1Password is the most polished and is frequently updated, but costs $50.

Continued… Read Part 2 of this article series.

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