Seven Simple Steps Toward Online Privacy
I haven’t received a targeted ad on my computer or mobile phone for more than two years now. If you care about your privacy — or even if you’re just sick of being bombarded by ads for diet pills seconds after you send an email to a friend complaining that your pants are too tight — here are seven simple steps you can take to make your online presence more private:
1) Junk Gmail. All Gmail emails, both incoming and outgoing — even the angry draft emails you decided not to send — are analyzed and stored permanently by Google, Inc., with every snippet of information the company can extract from your emails added to the massive profile it has compiled about you. I recommend using http://ProtonMail.com instead of Gmail. It’s based in Switzerland and subject to strict Swiss privacy laws. It takes only a few seconds to sign up, because the company doesn’t ask anything about you (imagine that!). The basic service is free, and the paid version is cheap. ProtonMail is incredibly easy to use, and it also uses end-to-end encryption for maximum privacy. Unfortunately, you might be using Gmail and not even know it. To save money, thousands of businesses and universities use Gmail under their own brands — even news services such as The Guardian, U.S. News & World Report, Salon, and The Hill. To find out whether you have been unknowingly corresponding with someone through Google servers, open that person’s email and then find and click on the “view full header” option in your email software. If you find “google.com” anywhere in the expanded header, Google has been monitoring all of your communications with that sender. Even if you switch to ProtonMail, you will still have no privacy when corresponding with someone using Gmail or hidden Google servers. I tell such people that if they want to communicate with me, they will need to use a different email service, and they usually do.
2) Switch Search Engines. Google’s search engine is the best because it indexes far more web pages than anyone else — at least 45 billion. But Google (the search engine) is also the most aggressive spying tool ever invented — funded from the outset by the NSA and the CIA to identify people who are a threat to national security. Google records every search you conduct, and your Google profile contains a complete history of every search you ever conducted — even those sketchy ones! Worse still, my research has shown in recent years that Google’s search engine is also the most powerful mind control device ever devised; it shifts the opinions of millions of people around the world every day without them knowing it. Instead of using Google.com, use http://StartPage.com. If you use the Firebox browser, you can even make StartPage your default search engine. Why StartPage? Because it doesn’t track you, and because it gives you full access to Google’s amazing index. In other words, it gives you great search results while also preserving your privacy. StartPage also doesn’t give you any search suggestions, which Google uses systematically to direct your searches as they please.
3) Kill Chrome. Google developed the Chrome browser because the massive amount of information they were collecting about you from their search engine wasn’t enough for them. With Chrome, they can see which web pages you visit — and what you do on those pages — even if you go to those pages directly rather than going through their search engine. If you value your privacy, never use Chrome, even in the bogus “incognito” mode. Instead, use http://Firefox.com, which is maintained by a nonprofit organization. As I reveal in “The New Censorship,” Google can still get information about you when you’re using Firefox or Safari, but nowhere near as much as they get when you’re using Chrome.
4) Axe Android. As I explain in “Google’s Gotcha,” even Chrome didn’t give Google enough information about you, so the company developed Android, an operating system for phones and other mobile devices — the equivalent of the Windows operating system that’s on most desktop computers. Chrome gives Google information about you only when you’re online, but because Android controls all your phone’s functions, it can track you — the phone numbers you dial or the music files you access , for example—even when you’re offline. If you value your privacy, donate your Android phone to a charity (such as http://CellPhonesForSoldiers.com), and buy a phone from a company that doesn’t use Google’s deceptive business model. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry make most of their money by selling products, whereas Google makes almost all of its money by suckering you with free services it uses to track you and then charging businesses a fee to send you targeted ads. If that doesn’t creep you out, maybe it should.
5) Heave Home. If Google has mind-fucked you into installing their new “Home” devices all over your apartment or house — and, yes, the company is currently urging people to install one in every room — send those cute little cylinders straight to hell. The Home device records everything you and your children say, and even when you think it’s inactive, it is still sending a signal back to headquarters.
6) Clear Cache and Cookies. Companies and hackers of all sorts are constantly installing invasive computer code on your computers and mobile devices, mainly to keep an eye on you but sometimes for more nefarious purposes. On a mobile device, you can clear out most of this garbage by going to the settings menu of your browser, selecting the “privacy and security” option and then clicking on the icon that clears your cache and cookies. With most laptop and desktop browsers, holding down three keys simultaneously — CTRL, SHIFT and DEL — takes you directly to the relevant menu; I use this technique multiple times a day without even thinking about it.
7) Pick a Proxy or VPN. For even more privacy, sign up for either a proxy or a VPN — a service that creates a buffer between you and the internet, fooling many of the tracking routines into thinking you’re not really you. VPNs provide more protection than proxies. My favorite VPN at the moment is http://PrivateInternetAccess.com. For under $40 a year, you can install the PIA app on up to five devices. It’s lightning fast, and you don’t need to be a computer geek to install or use it.
Before or after taking one or more of these steps, you can check to see how secure your computer or mobile device is by running tests at websites such as http://DNSLeakTest.com or http://BrowserLeaks.com.
In Dave Egger’s 2013 book, The Circle — due out in April 2017 as a movie starring Emma Watson — the only way one of the main characters can find to “go off-grid” is to kill himself by driving his vehicle off a bridge. If you follow the seven guidelines I’ve outlined above, you won’t need to resort to such extremes to regain some privacy in your life — at least for the time being.
Robert Epstein (@DrREpstein) is Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine. He is the author of 15 books and more than 250 scholarly and popular articles on creativity, artificial intelligence, internet manipulation and other topics. He is the co-discoverer of the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and, more recently, the discoverer of the Search Suggestion Effect (SSE).