Half Hour to Private Browsing
I wrote one of these about a year ago, so this is new and improved for 2017. The good news: technology has since changed to make this easier. The bad news: there are a slew of new reasons to take this stuff seriously. I anticipate both of those trends continue into the future. But technological victory over surveillance is not inevitable; your daily decisions regarding your personal data will win or lose that battle, it is as much a cultural and political issue as it is a technological one.
This is a long post. If you’re reading this offhand, I recommend reading the “Why” section now. If you feel compelled to put in a little time to protect your data, return to the “How” when you have a half hour and you’re on the computer you do most of your browsing from.
Privacy is important for you, for your freedom, for an unbounded future. Lack of privacy restricts your choices: who you interact with, where you can go, how much you pay for services. It gives employers, insurance companies, banks, tech firms, and governments power over you and your future.
Privacy is important to a stable society. It limits the capacity for government overreach. It removes the asset by which data monopolies centralize. It hedges against uncertainty in potentially dangerous applications of Artificial Intelligence.
Privacy is important for social interaction. I don’t want to know everything about you, and I don’t want you to know everything about me. I want to develop a relationship with you in all the fun, roundabout dances that humans have performed forever.
Privacy is important for forgiveness and growth. A transparent world brings all forgotten misdeeds and mistakes to the foreground. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has something to hide. There is nothing wrong with that.
Like all things important you need to put in effort. If you are lazy with your data, then your employer, your government, and all manors of corporation are happy to scoop it up. You’re serving up value to them on a platter, why wouldn’t they?
Using the following tools and strategies, you can achieve various levels of privacy. Privacy lies on a sliding scale. Some is better than none. More is better than some.
This is not a guide to digitally disappearing or getting off the grid. This guide attempts to add a decent layer of privacy on top of the tools we use most often, attempting to strike a balance between convenience and privacy. For some, this will barely scratch the surface of what it means to be “private”. For others, allocating time and adjusting your habits may prove too inconvenient.
A VPN is the single best thing you can do to protect your privacy on the internet. The ones worth using cost money. But just as we shouldn’t be lazy about our data, we should also be willing to value it beyond a few dollars each month.
A VPN encrypts all traffic between your computer and its server before it goes out to the rest of the internet.
If you’re a reasonably tech-savvy user trying to make a decision about which VPN to use, follow this guide. If you trust me (yikes), what follows is the one I use. I’m not recommending or endorsing it, but my experience with it has been good so far. Remember, if you’re not paying dollars for a VPN, they’re probably selling your data… everyone has to keep the lights on somehow.
Private Internet Access
PIA costs $3.33/month, but it provides a crucial internet service. It should be built in with your internet package. You probably pay something like $50/month for an exposed line* to the internet. If your ISP offered a secure option for $53.33/month you might jump at it. The only reason they don’t is because your data is worth a hell of a lot more to them than $3.33/month.
So buy a VPN. Think of it as a small price increase in your internet bill for a giant upgrade from an open line to a secure line.
*When I say exposed line, I literally mean an exposed line. Any traffic to and from a website using http can be read by anyone between you and the website you’re using. Traffic to and from a website using https is encrypted, so the data inside the message can’t be read. But the “to” and the “from” address still can be read. So for even the most secure websites, a snooping company can see which sites you’re on and the times you’re on them. A VPN eliminates both of those concerns by encrypting your data and concealing the destination.
A single subscription from PIA can be used on up to 5 devices. We use it on my phone, Meg’s phone, my work computer, our laptop, and our desktop.
If your browser were sentient it may be one of your closest confidants. By now it surely knows your name, address, card information, bank information, and passwords. It knows your browsing habits and spending habits, through which a large portion of your personality shines through. It has insight into your dreams and fears and it knows how you like to distract yourself. It knows the questions you’re too afraid to ask anyone else… and it knows all the questions you do ask everyone else (online). If you’re anything like me, your browser actually gets more interaction from you than 99% of the people you know (sad?), and certainly more than any other software on your devices. All this to say: it’s really important that you trust your browser.
Brave is entirely geared toward a private, ad-minimal, secure browsing experience. Brave is entirely useable as a browser but does not come with the rich ecosystem of Firefox- it is just 12 months old.
You can get Brave for your desktop, your iPhone, or your Android device. I’ve set it as the default browser for my iPhone; I never use Safari anymore and I don’t notice the difference. As a desktop browser, it’s not quite as solid as Firefox yet, largely because it doesn’t have the plugin capabilities. But all pages load much faster with Brave, because Brave strips out the ads and trackers by default.
Brave is also exploring a very interesting advancement in regards to browser payments. The thinking goes that we should be able to start paying websites in micro-pennies rather than with our personal data. This is perhaps the single most promising development for content creators and content consumers who care about privacy.
Firefox has held the mantle of best private browser since it broke the Microsoft IE monopoly back in the early 2000s. When it comes to privacy, Firefox is still leagues ahead of Chrome, Safari, IE, and Edge. But it will be interesting to see Firefox re-find its niche as Brave enters the game.
If you are using Firefox, there are a few crucial plugins you’ll need that I’ve listed below (largely their functionality is already baked into Brave).
It’s so damn tempting because it’s so damn good. But it’s so damn good because it’s run by a corporation dealing in your personal data. Of the bad actors in our cultural breakdown of privacy, Google is evil actor #1. Worse than Facebook, worse than the US Government. It’s been a long time since we heard “Don’t be evil” from Google. So try not to use Chrome. Please.
If you do decide to use it (because I get it, it is good) don’t forget to download the following plugins. These will still save your data from third parties. But not Google. Google has the capacity to see everything you do online if you’re using Chrome.
These both have similar privacy issues to Chrome, but neither is as good of a browser… leaving you with very little reason to use them.
There’s an old saying. IE is good for something: downloading a different browser.
If you’re on Firefox or Chrome, extend your browser with these protections. Brave has largely built in the following functionality. If you’re still on Safari or Edge you’re not paying attention. You’ve probably never subscribed to a blog if you’re on IE, so we won’t cover that case.
Ghostery (Tracking protection)
Ghostery blocks web trackers. Do not browse the web without it (again- unless you’re using Brave). It’s a pinch to install and you never have to think about it again. Most sites you visit have found that the only reasonable way to make money is to allow analytics companies to watch their users. Since many sites subscribe to only a handful of companies, these companies can watch you move from site to seemingly-unrelated-site. This is how ads somehow follow you around the internet.
Ghostery blocks this behavior. It comes with the added benefit of making your pages load faster and reducing your data usage because it strips out all this tracking software from each webpage.
uBlock Origin (Ad-blocking)
Nobody can force you to look at ads you don’t want to see, and uBlock Origin is the best ad-blocker out there. This doesn’t so much protect your personal data as it gives the advertising industry less of an incentive to track you. And intrusive ads tailored to you as an individual are a deep invasion of privacy. Like Ghostery, uBlock Origin allows pages to load faster and reduces your data-usage.
Careful: Don’t confuse this with AdBlock or AdBlock Pro or uBlock (different from uBlock Origin). If you have any of those installed, uninstall them and install uBlock Origin, these ad-blockers have done deals with ad-firms to let traffic through.
Like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Apple Cloud but encrypted and private from the company hosting it.
Extremely straightforward to use, identical to Dropbox in every other way. The first 5GB is free, I use it for all files on my computer apart from my photos/videos. I’ve never needed more than 5GB. If you do need more: again, consider paying for the upgrade in storage instead of using Dropbox. Each time you use an internet service, make that conscious choice: should I pay for this with my personal data or with my dollars? The answer always depends on the situation and it is rarely straightforward, but at least give the decision some thought.
External Hard Drive
Maybe the Cloud is overrated. An old-fashioned hard drive can be just as good and they’re cheaper than ever. I store all photos and videos on mine, and I’m confident nobody has access to them except me.
Your inbox is encrypted with keys that you control so ProtonMail couldn’t access your inbox if it wanted to. We use gmail so frequently that it’s easy to forget that Google reads everything in every email you send and receive.
Staying in charge of your private data comes with some responsibility. With ProtonMail, you will be responsible for the key (think password) with which your messages are encrypted. If you forget or lose this key, you can reset it, but you will lose access to all existing emails. Needless to say, this service isn’t perfect if you’re looking for email longevity or if you’re forgetful with your passwords.
End to end encrypted messaging, like iMessage or WhatsApp, only private. I put Signal next to iMessage on my phone. The functionality is identical so its convenience is only limited by the number of people in your network who use it. Encourage your friends to use it and it could very easily become your default messenger.
That’s all for now. Happy private browsing!
Disclosure: I have no affiliation with any of the services listed above. This list has been constructed through my own personal research. When it comes to any product recommendation, be careful what you trust online. If you don’t know me personally I would not even recommend you trust this blog. Many companies pay lots of money to spam the internet with blog posts and “Best-of” lists like this one.