Don’t Just Complain About Online Privacy, Protect It!

Gary McGath
Dec 14, 2019 · 5 min read

Protecting your online privacy takes work. Complaining accomplishes nothing. There’s no way to guarantee perfect privacy, but a little effort will hugely improve your situation.

Spy camera and “top secret” stamp
Spy camera and “top secret” stamp

People who don’t do anything to protect their online personal information fall into three categories. They don’t care, they don’t know how, or they care but are too lazy. This article is addressed to the “don’t know how” group, but let’s start with a few words on why you should care and take action.

These tips are for people who want to avoid excessive snooping, not for ones who have a critical need for secrecy. If you’re Edward Snowden, you know better than to rely on an article like this. (And, by the way, thank you, Edward!)

Nothing to hide?

Some people say “I have nothing to hide.” They may think their lives are boring and they never say anything that would upset someone powerful. Others say, “Bring it on! Everything I say is on public display!” Neither attitude is smart.

Whether you’re militantly uncontroversial or unashamedly controversial, you have lots to hide. We live with a maze of laws which we mostly don’t know about. If someone with a bad attitude and an influential position goes through enough of your information, they could discover something to hang you or a member of your family.

Scammers love getting to know people. The more they know about you, the more convincing they can make their pitches. Other crooks want to get legally identifying information, like your Social Security number and your credit cards.

If you’re not convinced, good luck. From here on, I’ll assume that you care about your privacy but may not know much about how to protect it.

The tricks I’m describing here have equivalents in most browsers. I’ll draw the examples from Firefox because that’s what I know best.

Browser preferences

Under Firefox preferences, there’s a page called “Privacy & Security.” This isn’t the place for a detailed tutorial, but you should familiarize yourself with its options and decide what balance between privacy and ease of use you want. You can choose “standard” or “strict” protection if you don’t want to get into the details.

Firefox privacy preferences screenshot
Firefox privacy preferences screenshot

Rather than trying to cover everything, I’ll mention a couple of my favorite features. Under “Cookies and site data,” I always check “Delete cookies and site data when Firefox is closed.” This means that every time you quit and relaunch the browser, you start with a more or less blank slate. You’ll have to log in to all sites again every time you do this, but you can have Firefox save your logins and passwords. Tracking cookies won’t hang on for a long time, provided you quit the browser occasionally.

Blocking third-party cookies doesn’t cause problems, in my experience. It just makes cross-site tracking harder.

The “Manage permissions” button under “Cookies and Site Data” lets you block all cookies from especially intrusive sites. You need to be careful here; blocking all of a site’s cookies will often break it. In the worst case, you can just unblock the site.

Private windows

The advertised purpose of private windows is, when it comes down to it, to let you view sleazy sites without letting your family know. But they have another use. They set up a mini-session in the browser which ends when you close all private windows. All the cookies from that session will be flushed. One nice use is to view a page as it appears when you’re logged out. You can remain logged in with your main session, but the private window won’t see your login cookies.

For privacy purposes, the benefit of a private window is that it cleans up your history when you close it. Be sure to close all private windows when you’re done. On Firefox, at least, they all share the same session, and their cookies remain around as long as any private window is open.

Ad blockers

Using a plugin to block ads doesn’t just clean up your view; it reduces the information others collect on you and can prevent malware from getting into your computer. Ads are typically inserted directly into a page by third parties. They may collect information in unsavory ways, even if the site you’re visiting has a good privacy policy. My choice is Adblock Plus. Check the reviews for various blockers to decide which one is best for you.

Ad blockers can’t tell advertising from legitimate content with 100% accuracy, so they can make some sites misbehave. Most of them let you set up exceptions for sites you trust.

NoScript

My favorite Firefox plugin is NoScript. It disables JavaScript for websites except where you allow it. It blocks all kinds of tracking, animation, and pop-ups.

Granted, NoScript is for advanced users. A great many pages won’t work properly with JavaScript disabled. Some will come up as blank pages. Many sites rely on third-party JavaScript. You’ll have to fiddle with the settings, but it’s worth the effort if you like clean-looking pages that aren’t constantly trying to distract you from what you’re reading.

Privacy-oriented browsers

If you’re determined not to let the sites you visit know who you are, consider the Tor browser. It’s a modified version of Firefox that works with the Tor network, sending you through a series of proxies so that your IP address is hidden. Its default settings maximize privacy.

I’ve tried it and don’t like it for normal use. The network is excruciatingly slow. The exit node, which is where the host site thinks you’re viewing it from, could be anywhere in the world. This can result in your site being localized for Croatian or Vietnamese. If hiding your IP address is a priority and you don’t like VPNs, it’s worth considering.

The Brave browser offers a less extreme solution. It includes ad blocking and other privacy features. It’s the browser which I use most on iOS.

Take your pick, but take action

If you value your privacy, you have lots of options. Hiding from targeted CIA-level surveillance is hard, but getting a lot more privacy than the default is easy. If you’re upset that websites seem to know your every thought, don’t just gripe. Look at the browser settings, plugins, and other options available to you and find ones that supply you with the privacy that you want.

Gary McGath

Written by

Freelance writer, lover of liberty, music, and cats. Computer geek. Other interests include bicycling, history, philosophy, and science fiction.

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