I haven’t received a targeted ad on my computer or mobile phone since 2014. 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) Jettison 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 LLC, 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 https://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, The New York Times, 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 people whose emails are shared with Google that if they want to communicate with me, they will need to use a a more secure email service, and they usually switch.
2) Switch Search Engines. Google’s search engine is the best because it indexes far more web pages than anyone else. 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 https://StartPage.com. If you use the Firebox browser or the new Brave 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 gives you the option of turning off search suggestions, which Google uses systematically to manipulate 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, which still tracks you. Instead, use https://Firefox.com, which is maintained by a nonprofit organization, or use the new https://Brave.com browser, which is what I now use. 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. The https://Brave.com browser, which blocks all ads, is faster than Chrome, and was developed by the software engineer who built Firefox.
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 tracks you — the phone numbers you’re dialing, the music files you’re playing, the places you’re visiting—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. Phones from Apple, Blackberry, and other companies, protect your privacy, whereas Google phones or phones that use Google’s version of Android do not. Companies like Apple and Microsoft 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. Remember when your parent or grandparent told you there was “no such thing as a free lunch”? On the internet, that’s especially true. When a service seems to be “free,” you are actually paying dearly to use it (please see my essay on this topic, entitled “Free Isn’t Freedom”).
5) Heave Home. If Google has bamboozled you into installing its 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. Google has recently been issued patents on techniques that allow it to interpret all kinds of sounds its devices are detecting — including your bedroom behavior and your kids’ tooth brushing. Unfortunately, Home is not the only device Google is using to listen in; your Android phone never stops listening, and it was revealed recently that Nest, Google’s home thermostat, comes equipped with a hidden microphone. And, yes, in case you were wondering, Amazon’s Alexa device also records everything it hears. When my eldest son got the facts about Amazon’s surveillance device, he tossed it straight into the garbage, and you should too.
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. You can configure the Brave and Firefox browsers to erase your cache and cookies automatically every time you close your browser.
7) Pick a Proxy or VPN. For even more privacy, sign up for either a proxy or a VPN (Virtual Private Network) — a service that creates a buffer between you and the internet, fooling many of the surveillance companies into thinking you’re not really you. VPNs provide more protection than proxies. My favorite VPNs at the moment are https://NordVPN.com and https://PrivateInternetAccess.com. For under $40 a year (with discounts), you can install the Nord or PIA apps on up to five devices. They’re lightning fast, and you don’t need to be a computer geek to install or use them.
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 — released in 2017 as a movie starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks — the only way one of the main characters could find to go off-grid was 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.
Article updated June 8, 2019.
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 300 scholarly and popular articles on creativity, artificial intelligence, internet manipulation and other topics. He has discovered and is studying about a dozen new forms of online manipulation, including the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and the Search Suggestion Effect (SSE). You can support and learn more about his research at https://MyGoogleResearch.com.