Protect your online privacy and prevent manipulation by advertising types (like me).

Protect your online privacy and prevent manipulation by advertising types (like me).

Having worked in the advertising business for many years, I’ve been privy to a lot of online “services” which are dedicated to tracking your every move on the Internet. So, as a public service, here are a few things you can do to protect your online privacy by thwarting these nosy bastards.

LAST UPDATED: 2/14/18 (see my current recommendations: “Stop online companies from stealing, selling, and leaking your personal data.”

The goal of these data brokers is to figure out who you are, learn all about your interests and activities, tie all that information to your public records and ultimately sell that frighteningly detailed and accurate personal profile to anyone with literally $39. Screw that.

For more info about how and why you’re being spied on, read the EFF’s page about online tracking.

Some of the many data-brokers who endanger your online privacy every day. 

Data selling services like Intellius (now PeopleConnect), BlueKai, and RapLeaf (now TowerData) and a host of others are creepy as hell and, frankly, dangerous to everyone who’s not a stalker or identity thief (in which case these services are super convenient). Here’s a great explanation of how and why online tracking happens.

So what can you do to protect your online privacy?

The first thing you can do to protect your privacy online is to use a non-commercial browser like…well, there’s really only one: Firefox. (If you can’t leave Google’s Chrome, try Brave, a new security-focused browser built on the same engine). As an entirely open-source product of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, Firefox isn’t trying to study your web habits or sell your personal data (although they DO get a cut of any Google search you do through their in-browser search field; a small price to pay for a top-notch, free browser).

Firefox has a Do Not Track feature that, as of 2018, is essentially toothless as adherence is entirely voluntary. Enable it, but don’t count on it doing anything until Congress passes a law requiring it. And even then, it’s more show than go.

Firefox also has a “porn browsing” mode that was tactfully renamed “private browsing.” It’s best for visiting sites you’d prefer your wife didn’t know you went to—it doesn’t retain your browser history—but your ISP and the NSA still knows what you did and how often. 

If you do nothing else, change your search engine. 

If you really love Google search results (and who doesn’t?), change your browser search engine to DuckDuckGo, a really good search engine — out of Pennsylvania of all places — that doesn’t store your IP address like Google and Bing. It’s the only search engine dedicated to your online privacy.

If you MUST have Google results, try StartPage.com. This French company simply acts as a go-between, so any query you type into StartPage is routed to Google and then returned to you. The search just looks like it came from StartPage, not you. (Though, I believe they’ve been bought by another company for whose bona fides I can’t vouch).

Reduce the signal, boost the noise. 

To be brutally honest, there’s not much you can do to stop the illegal and immoral online surveillance that’s happening in America these days. However, you can make the information they glean effectively useless by creating more of it. Why more? Because data is only useful/valuable to marketers if it’s somewhat specific and accurate. If the data is full of irrelevant data—i.e., if it’s more noise than signal—it’s not useful to anyone. 

To that end, TrackMeNot is a useful browser extension designed to protect web searchers from surveillance and data-profiling by using obfuscation. It pulls search terms from news publications to create fake queries for search engines. With TrackMeNot, your real web searches are lost in a sea of false searches.

Install third-party add-ons. 

Once you download and install Firefox, you should quickly install a few addons: uMatrix (my new favorite), NoScript (or Ghostery or BeefTaco, all three four do about the same thing, I just prefer NoScript uMatrix). They basically prevent unnecessary “javascripts” from running inside your browser (including viruses). Javascripts add functionality to sites, but are more often used by third-party companies to gather visitor’s behavioral data.

When you first visit a site with uMatix installed, the page won’t appear until you allow certain scripts to run. Generally, it’s okay to allow scripts from the site’s own domain name to run, and generally, it’s bad to let scripts from this list to run. Over time, NoScript uMatrix builds a whitelist of inoffensive sites, so you don’t have to keep allowing the same scripts every time — it’s kind of annoying to set up at first, but it gets better over time.

Here’s a list of Firefox extensions that you should consider adding to protect your privacy online. 

Other recommended addons include AdBuster (blocks ad networks), Self-Destructing Cookies (manages browser cookies), and especially BetterPrivacy which manages your “super cookies” (aka “Adobe Flash cookies”) the most insidious and eternal tracking method.

Getting serious about privacy online. 

Finally, if you’re really into weird stuff — I’m looking at you, Furries — install TOR for Firefox addon, (TOR stands for The Onion Router). It’s a proxy server that cleverly lets you surf the Web almost anonymously and prevents anyone other than the NSA from knowing where you’re surfing. TOR’s been recently hacked, but unless you’re a Chinese secret agent, you’re probably too small a fish for the Feds to care that you like to dress like a cute kitty cat. The biggest downside of TOR is that it slows your connection to a crawl.

Nothing is private on the Internet. 

Even if you use all of these tactics, you still won’t have perfect online privacy — after all, super-smart engineers and programmers are being paid 40 hours a week to overcome your best efforts at anonymity. But I say, why make spying on you any easier than it has to be, right?

GET MORE CURRENT INFO HERE: “How to stop online companies from stealing, selling, and leaking your personal data.