Why you need privacy when browsing online
The idea of using the internet to make the world a global village sounded like a great idea at inception. However, the structure of websites today and internet algorithms has greatly compromised individual privacy online to the point where you can learn almost anything you want to know about anyone by checking what they do online. As if the thought of having your entire life as an open book online is not scary enough, there are plenty of the hackers and fraudsters online who are seeking to steal your identity or money through your online activities.
There have also been revelations of the NSA spying on people through the internet. Governments all over the world are looking to make laws that allow them to monitor all internet activity of their citizens. The thought of an all seeing big brother monitoring every email, text, IM, webpage you visit and so much more has been all over the news over the past couple of years. Technology today is unavoidable that it’s almost impossible to live without it but it has led to sacrificing privacy to a great extent.
Getting off the internet altogether is not that easy either. Today, most instant messaging platforms are online based; information technology is the backbone of running most businesses, maintain social relationships and so much more. Since we cannot live without it, there are a couple of ways to get over the security and privacy hurdle.
The first thing to remember when browsing online is that digital privacy does not exist. You should always know that you are being recorded and monitored even if you have not done anything wrong. Every email, internet searches, banking activities and passwords can be used to create a profile of who you are, where you live and how you think. You need to always be aware of the kind of information you share online. Some browsers such as Google chrome have developed browsing modes such as ‘incognito’ which ensures that your browsing and search histories are erased and any tracking cookies are dumped once you are done with your private browsing session. But even this browsing mode has a few flaws that prevent you from attaining the ultimate level of security while browsing online.
The basics of online security and anonymity
These are the kinds of measures that you should always practice when browsing online to maintain a standard level of security.
- Always be wary of suspicious programs and messages
Malware and phishing scams have become extremely cunning in how they get you to open and launch the software in your computer. Being constantly aware of the potential risk of using the internet helps you to always stay vigilant with your security measures. For instance, you should not open emails that seem suspicious or unusual, especially if it is a message that you were not expecting and is related to your financial services, utility accounts or social media pages. You should always delete such emails without opening them. You should also maintain the same wariness when dealing with double links and attachments that come in your emails. You should only open them if you are sure of the source.
- Keep your security systems up to date
Software developers have also made a great effort towards providing basic security measure for personal computers. However line security threats are constant and getting severe every day. This is why you should always keep your computer systems updated with the latest upgrades in security measure for the new risks that develop. Using automatic updates makes it easier to stay on top of things.
- Launch privacy settings
You can also use privacy settings on websites and internet services especially when using social media pages and search sites. You can find security and privacy settings under the settings menu. With most websites, the default is your information is set to being shared publicly. If you do not change the settings to private, anyone online can access you information quite easily. Changing to private settings ensures personal information is shared to only those within your closed circle of online friends. When it comes to the internet, it is ideal to share information with only the people that you personally know. Over sharing of information on social media has led to numerous risks, especially identity theft, home break-ins when you go on vacation and share your whereabouts online and so much more.
- Unlink your accounts
Websites today give more options to link accounts across websites and even browsers. At any one time, you may have hundreds of different websites having access to your information online. Try this, enter your name into a search engine and see how many results will come up, especially the ones in websites where you have never visited yet these websites have somewhat accurate information related to your profiles on other websites. Linking accounts is said to be convenient option but it does create more risk since one of your accounts being compromised means all your linked accounts will also be compromised. Unlinking your accounts can help to protect your information online.
Make your internet activity anonymous
There are two main ways through which you can make your internet activity anonymous: through VPN service or Tor. These two security measures work by hiding your real IP address and encrypt information back and forth in your internet connection.
- Use A VPN
VPN is the abbreviation for Virtual Private Network, which secures your online privacy through encrypted tunnels between your computer and the remote VPN server. With a VPN server, your computer will be connected to the internet through the VPN server encrypted tunnels and the information from the internet being downloaded to your computer will also be encrypted before it is sent to your computer. Without the VPN server, your computer will be connected directly to the internet and any information sent or received can be easily accessed.
The VPN tunnel uses encryption tools that hides the data in the tunnels and even your internet service provider cannot monitor the information being sent back and forth. This encrypted data can only be accessed by computers at either end of the VPN tunnel. The VPN server can see all the data going in and out of the tunnel, it can also trace it back to you. It is crucial to select a VPN service provider that is reliable and does not keep logs of internet activity. Some of the best VPN providers that do not keep logs of internet activity include Mullvad and AirVPN. VPN is very secure and anonymous as long as the VPN provider keeps no logs of internet activity. VPN is particularly great for securing your connections in public Wi-Fi hotspots and evading firewalls. You can also use VPN servers for P2P file sharing and accessing geo-restricted media content by spoofing IPs. The only downside to using VPNs is that it can be costly and it is obvious to anyone observing you online that you are actually using a VPN.
- Tor (The Onion Router)
Tor is a free software anonymity network that allows you to browse anonymously online. With Tor, you can connect to at least three randomly selected nodes with your data being re-encrypted in every node. Therefore, every node knows who it’s connected to but no node knows the entire circuit. The exit node is the final link in the chain that connects you to the internet and is the biggest weakness of the systems. Since the nodes are run by volunteers, those running exit nodes are quite vulnerable to take the brunt for other Tor users using the system for illegal practices such as piracy or worse. The IP of the offenders is often traced to the exit node IP address.
There are a small number of exit nodes available for this reason and restrictive governments have been able to monitor and block access to many of these nods. This means that Tor users in some countries will need to connect to a number of different nodes if need be to find one that has not been blocked. Although Tor is considered the most secure and anonymous mode of internet access, it can be very slow since the user data has to be routed through different servers at random in various parts of the world before it connects to the internet.
Unlike the VPN servers, the best part about Tor is that it is completely free. But it is not good for P2P downloading or streaming in spoofed IPs for geo-content websites. It is also visible to online observers that you are using Tor and for this, some websites may refuse to cooperate.
When it boils down to a basic choice between the two, VPN is much faster and flexible than Tor as it still gives plenty of security and anonymous internet browsing. Tor is more suitable for people with more serious privacy needs such as life threatening situations. If you are trying to stay hidden from your own government, you can simply use VPN providers located in a different country that do not keep logs of internet browsing activities. Tor and VPN can also work together for a greater level of security when browsing online. You can route a VPN connection though Tor or use OpenVPN connection through SSL OR SSH tunnels.
You can also use browser extensions to improve your privacy while surfing the net. Most web browsers support a host of these extensions.
- AdBlock is supported by browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Opera Mini and Android browsers. It is a must have extension that blocks all kinds of advertisements, even those embedded in YouTube videos. Other than just blocking numerous ads online, it also warns you when you visit websites that are known to host malware and it blocks third party tracking cookies. AdBlock is extremely powerful and easy to use.
- Disconnect is an anti-tracking and anti-cookie extension that helps you to maintain secure Wi-Fi encryption and page load optimization. Disconnect does not only block third party tracking cookies, it gives you control over all the elements of the website and prevents social networks from following you to collect data from your internet surfing activities.
- HTTPS Everywhere is supported by Firefox and Chrome. It is an essential tool that always ensures you connect to websites through secure HTTPS connections whenever possible.
- NoScript for Firefox and ScripSafe for chrome are extremely powerful tools that give you control over the scripts that are run by your browser. Unlike the other extensions however, No script requires a bit of tuning and tweaking by the web savvy internet user for it to work the way they want it to.
Other than using these extensions, modern web browsers have the Do Not Track Option that instructs the website to disable cross-site tracking whenever you are browsing online. However, this option does not guarantee privacy since implementation is dependent on the website owners. There are also many other privacy related browser extensions that you can find on the web.
Beware of Web Tracking Technologies
Making your browsing anonymous online is also a great way to evade advertisers who use sneaky tactics to track your browsing activities and to create a profile of you so they can sell you stuff. You are probably already aware of cookies and how to clear them or you can use the private browsing mode on the browser, which automatically blocks cookies. Private browsing is always recommended but this may not be enough to stop others from tracking your internet activities.
- Your computer makes DNS entries by cacheing the IP address received from your default DNS server to speed up your internet access. This is one of the web tracking technology that you can control by clearing the DNS cache.
- Flash cookies are also quite widespread in use. They are not always blocked when you disable cookies in your browser and these can also track you just as well as regular cookies. You can locate and manually delete flash cookies from your browser or use the Cleaner utility program, which cleans out flash share cookies, and any other thing that could be slowing down your computer or tracking your browsing activities.
- Browser fingerprinting is a special way in which you can be uniquely identified and tracked through your browser configuration and your operating system details. Trying to use certain plugins can increase the uniqueness of your browser fingerprint. The latest software that has been developed to prevent browser fingerprinting is the Privacy Badger, although the theory has yet to be confirmed in practice.
- You should be aware that HTML web storage is usually enabled on all browsers by default. This kind of web tracking technology is more powerful than cookies since it is an old way of cookies storing the data from your browsing. Web storage is more persistent and has a greater storage capacity. You can turn off browser storage in some browsers including Firefox and Internet Explorer
- ETags are another type of web tracking technologies that are part of HTTP. Your browser uses ETags to track source changes at specific URL. Your browser fingerprint may be tracked by comparing the changes in the markers with a database. ETags are a type of web tracking technology that is almost undetectable.
- History stealing or history snooping is a much more complicated and interesting web tracking technology. History stealing takes advantage of web design by allowing websites you visit to access your past browsing history. If this information is combined with special media profiling, you can be easily identifiable. The best way to deal with history stealing is by masking your IP dress with an encryption service, which helps to disassociate you from your real identity. This makes it difficult to put a profile since your regular browsing activities cannot be detected.
There is a lot more you can do to secure your online activities. It all depends on your how you use the internet. For the basic internet user browsing the internet for research, social media and simple email communication, the browser extensions, basic online security and using encryption services is enough to stay anonymous online. However, if you have much more serious security needs, you may want to consider combining a couple of security measures.
Encrypting your emails
As mentioned earlier, email communication is another common channel where privacy can be greatly compromised when using the internet. You can use end-to-end email encryption programs to ensure the information is sent secretly. One of the most famous options is the Pretty Good Privacy, an open source software. The program uses a simple command line interface to secure email communication. You can also use PGP on mobile devices, through the android play store, for a friendlier user experience and built in support.
- The GNU Privacy Guard is a recent release a free and open source alternative for windows, Linux and OSX operating systems. This basic program uses a simple command line interface but is a much better alternative to PGP.
- You can also use encrypted Webmail through Hushmail since it has PGP encryption on a web-based service. However, hushmail is just useful to avoid general government surveillance and protecting personal data from hackers, you should not use it if you are engaging in any illegal activity.
- You can encrypt Gmail using the Encrypted Communication extension in Firefox, as you will receive 256-Bit AES end-to-end encryption. Remember to share the password with the recipient, as they will need it to decrypt the message on their end.
You can also use other applications and extensions to encrypt files and folders before sending them via your regular email even without encrypting the email itself. In case you want to protect your stored emails, you can also encrypt the email storage folder using programs such TrueCrypt.