Untrack Yo’self: How to step up your digital privacy

Facebook. Cambridge Analytica. Buzzwords. As a result of recent events, 64% of people say they’re now more concerned about their online privacy.

Fair enough. We’re seeing the implications of careless handling of personal data by Facebook play out right now. Thing is, we can’t predict what else could happen. I say better safe than sorry. Even so, I find online privacy to be a surprisingly divisive subject. I’d just rather be prepared. Down the road if we decide that all this data harvesting is really not good, then we’ll have already given up a metric fuckton of information. No taksies backsies!

No taksies backsies!

So what can you do? The good news is that even if you don’t want to give up Facebook, you can take a few positive steps toward more secure and private browsing.

Here are the things I do — my “privacy stack” if you will.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Browser Extensions

DuckDuckGo, Adblock Plus

Ad blockers are nothing new. I think advertising is a fair exchange for content that websites give me, but many sites take it too far. Adblock Plus will cut out a lot of junk, but allows “acceptable” ads. You can also disable it on the sites you choose — if promoted I’m generally fine with disabling it on a site-by-site basis, because its usually good-quality websites that ask nicely.

On top of that, I use DuckDuckGo’s extension improve encryption and block other trackers. Both of these pretty much work in the background.

DNS

1.1.1.1

DNS is what points your device to the right places online. According to CloudFlare:

Unfortunately, by default, DNS is usually slow and insecure. Your ISP, and anyone else listening in on the Internet, can see every site you visit and every app you use — even if their content is encrypted. Creepily, some DNS providers sell data about your Internet activity or use it target you with ads.

Fixing this is as simple as changing a couple numbers. Just use CloudFlare’s new 1.1.1.1 DNS — they even promise faster speeds.

VPN

NordVPN / TunnelBear / Private Internet Access

VPNs hide your IP address from websites and third-party trackers, keeping your identity and location private. It’s another layer of security on top of the other measures mentioned. The downside is that it’s not free (around $60/year). I’d call it a nice-to-have, so if you don’t feel like adding another payment to your credit card, that’s cool.

If you’re new to VPNs an easy recommendation is TunnelBear. It’s one click on-and-off, has cool bear icons, and a free option.


And now for the hard part…

Yep, saying goodbye Google. Like many, I’ve become fairly reliant on Google. It’s hard to imagine completely pulling away from all these great free services. But since its business model is essentially selling you to advertisers, if you want privacy you have to take the plunge.

Search

DuckDuckGo

What better way to get to know someone the see everything they search for? While social networks like Facebook know all the stuff we share, Google knows all the stuff we don’t.

This is what started it all for me. I tried something new and it worked out.

I’ve been using DuckDuckGo for search for a few years. Long enough that it doesn’t even register in my head that I’m using something that’s not Google. They’re growing steadily and now rack up over 20 million searches per month (small compared to Google, but not insignificant). The search results are just as good, but they don’t track you. They have the same advertising model as Google, meaning you see ads based on the things you search for. Like Google, the ads are relevant and seem to be doing just fine without having any other data about you.

Browser

Safari / Firefox / Opera

I just said goodbye to Chrome. Learning that Google can still track you in Incognito Mode was an eye-opener, and I’ll admit, it came as a surprise to me.

“Wait!” you exclaim, “No it doesn’t. Does it?”

Incognito Mode doesn’t save the things you do to your computer, so it won’t record anything in the browser history, or save cookies, etc. But Google still probably tracks you (as far as I can tell, the extent of said tracking is not known).

I moved to good old Safari on my MacBook and so far so good. It does perform better on a Mac, using less energy than Chrome did (handy when your battery is low), and my favourite extensions are available.

Email

FastMail / ProtonMail

I’m currently using FastMail for $5/month. What its name lacks in creativity it makes up for in accuracy: it’s a really fast email service (with calendar and contacts — the usual email-type stuff). You get a custom domain and several aliases, so it’s great for work as an alternative to Gmail or G Suite. The Web UI is pretty lame, so expect to use an external email client like iOS/macOS Mail or Outlook.

I know, it seems insane to pay for email, but think about it this way: if email had always cost $5 per month, and Google came to you and said “We’ll give you email for free if you let us see it all, and show you ads in your inbox” would you be so keen to switch?

As another option, Swiss-based ProtonMail offers end-to-end encryption if you need that (like Elliot on the TV series Mr. Robot). It gives you 500MB of storage for free, which would eventually run out if you don’t ever delete emails (Gmail has trained me well in this regard).


So that’s my current “privacy stack”. Some of you may think I’m paranoid, while others probably think I’m not doing enough. I admit, I get a kick out of trying to circumvent all the tracking. It’s like a challenge. It satisfies my inner Boy Scout desire to “be prepared”. Isn’t it weird how much I feel like I have to defend my opinion?

Anyhoo, you can’t knock it if you don’t try it. Give DuckDuckGo a try for a few searches. Make it the default search engine in your browser and your phone. You can always switch back.

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