Family IT Advice #2 – How do I protect my Privacy?

By | 9 June, 2019

Privacy in the modern age is a rare thing. Always remember if you are using a free service, or getting something cheaper, you’re probably the product. This post goes into some of the stuff you can do to protect yourself.

I often get questions around is there anything I can do to protect privacy. I can describe what I do….but its not an exhaustive list. I try not to give away too much, but I know I could go a lot further if I wanted to, but then the usefulness of the internet and its speed may not be as good as if unprotected.

First lets just think about roughly how the internet works. When you put a URL into your browser, the browser asks another computer for an address, and then once that comes back all the information between you and the service you are requesting travels through lots of other computers and network devices. If you’re really paranoid, you start assuming that everyone is listening.

Encryption exists with some services but not others, but even that encryption can be subverted.

I’ll breakdown what I do, and then describe each in a bit more detail.

  • Turn off any Operating System Telemetry I can
  • Browsers, install ublock origin and ghostery
  • If you have to use social media, limit the devices and browsers and apps you might use it with or use incognito/privacy settings
  • Try and make sure websites you go to are accessed via https:// rather than http://

The above are easy tweaks and tend not to impact day-to-day browsing too much, the following are more likely to break things or need a bit more advanced knowledge to implement

  • Use Firefox
  • Use a VPN
  • Use Tor Browser

Operating System Telemetry

The major players in the main piece of software everyone uses (the bit in between the hardware of the computer and all of the other software, is called the Operating System). The main ones are Linux, Windows and MacOS.

Each provide telemetry back to the people that develop them on how you use their OS’s. The telemetry is used to improve the software by working out how its used. On Windows I use a program called Spybot Anti Beacon to turn off this telemetry. Linux and Mac, if asked during the installation of the OS, I simply say no when it asks if I want to provide telemetry

uBlock Origin and Ghostery

As part of every web page there are special trackers in code or tiny images that whenever downloaded by your browser, are logged by somebody else. Installing these two extensions, available in both Chrome and Firefox, stops internet Ads, Social Media trackers and some of the easier to block widgets that can be used to track you. They’re not exhaustive, but they do drastically improve how the internet looks through your browser and reduces the amount of data that is logged against you.

Social Media

Once you’ve logged into a Social Media site, many of the “share this” buttons that are contained on much of the web and cookies stored on your machine then enable the Social Media site to collect data about your internet habits because they are so pervasive across the internet.

I tend to limit my usage of particular sites to only one method so as to reduce the amount of data getting logged. Brief looks at facebook, only through my phone and I close down the app fully after I’ve looked at it. LinkedIn I only use through a specific browser that I don’t normally use.

Good use of incognito mode and privacy mode is to logon to those sites in these modes, so that the caches of stored data on your machine don’t last.

I’m not on the ‘net to like and share stuff and spread news generally…

https:// vs http://

If you access a site using https, that site is encrypted. Middle men (at least in theory) are less able to see what pages within a site you have accessed, they can only see that you’ve hit the site. Not to say its impossible, but https is one of your first lines of defence.

Use Firefox

I have a healthy skepticism these days of Chrome. Don’t get me wrong its a fab browser, and as a development platform, it is bristling with tools that help no end.

When it comes to general use however I’m a bit more, lets say, worried.

An internet search engine, whose whole business model is based on collecting data to target ads at you just happens to make a market leading browser.

I don’t have any data specifically to say its not collecting that data. Its just too much of a coincidence

Use a VPN

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. Its an extra service that can encrypt *all* traffic between you and a third party provider. It essentially details of your internet surfing from your ISP. Its a bit like the https argument, just taken to a higher level since your now not just encrypting data between you a specific service.

Again, healthy dose of skepticism here, you are only moving the problem. You might not trust your ISP, but do you trust your VPN service more or less….thats slightly harder to answer.

Use Tor Browser

Tor stands for The Onion Router. In simple terms, we discussed earlier how there’s lots of middle men between you and the services you are trying to access over the internet. Tor is a special setup where the software forwards your internet traffic through a network that is configured so that after every hop through it, a layer of encryption is added, and you pass through multiple computers. It makes your internet traffic much harder to track. It does slow down your experience a lot though compared to normal though since encryption and going through extra hosts around the globe will reduce your speed.

…so that’s a few of the things I do. As I said, not exhaustive. I go through times of more paranoia and some times less. Its always good to know your options.