Recently, someone said to me, “Hey, you look like a paranoid, nerdy loser. How can I stay safe on the Internet?” to which I replied, “It's easy, Mom.”
Inspired by Mom's clear desire to protect her personal data, I went off on a rant about every American's Fourth Amendment right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.
Yet by the time I got around to citing Katz v. United States (1967)—wherein the Supreme Court held that these protections extend to intrusions on the privacy of individuals, too—she'd already Googled the answer on her mobile phone.
But if—by some miracle of SEO—your internet search turned up this page result, here are my best tips for sabotaging the freeloading data suckers that are over-running the Interwebs.
First, here's why protecting personal data online is still very important. (In a word, FREEEEDOM!)
Privacy is so important, the framers of the Constitution mentioned it (while leaving out any reference to God or America being a Christian nation). Yeah, that's the level of concern privacy held for the founding fathers.
In the modern world, there are still good reasons for protecting yours: Some guy named Bruce Schneier put it better than I ever could.
Sadly, since most of us are too lazy to protest the government's continual intrusions into our daily lives, I'll offer some easy ways to protect your personal data and limit the amount of information governments and companies can glean from your online activities.
Hasn't the data privacy ship already sailed? Do I still need to be worried?
Yes, you do, and more than ever—thanks to browser cookies, Flash-cookies, IP tracking, fingerprinting, camera phone lens dust, and a myriad of other new digital tracking techniques, your personal data is currently and constantly being collected en masse by scum- and Personally Identifiable Information–sucking data brokers.
The issue here isn't even just about protecting your Personally Identifiable Information (or PII), it's about compensation, too. Faceless companies you've never heard of—Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future, among MANY others—are making money off spying on you and your behavior.
That's right, they're making millions, and you're getting squat. Screw that.
Now, you can opt-out of many databases with this list of data brokers, but just remember that, even if you opt-out of those, other tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google still collect and retain tons of data about you. All. The. Time. Forever. They are relentless data scraping machines.
Data collection, in itself, isn't evil. (But data brokers are the devil.)
To be honest, I want businesses that I patronize to collect and save the data I provide them with through visiting their store, browsing their website, or calling their support line. I want businesses to know when my birthday is, what my sizes are, where I live, and how I like my burgers cooked.
I want them to know and retain my preferences as I have consciously chosen to do business with them. I don't even mind that Google collects all this detailed information about me. I simply don't want them (or anyone else) to sell or share that personal data or offer its use to third-parties for advertising purposes.
Collecting so much PII—gleaned from tracking your behaviors everywhere around the internet—would never fly in the real world. If someone followed you around the mall from store to store, taking notes on everything you did, you'd call the cops and get a restraining order.
Yet the sale of my personal data—to companies I don't know, or worse, despise (like Microsoft, AT&T, Comcast, et al)—should be illegal, and severely punishable.
Until that happens, though, we're on our own.
Here's how to protect your personal data using Firefox and a few add-ons.
- Download the non-commercial Firefox web browser as it has the most privacy-oriented add-ons of any browser
- Use the Containers add-on to prevent Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google from following you off their site to other sites around the web
- Add the DuckDuckGo search engine add-on, so you can search the web without anyone retaining your searches or IP address
- Add uBlock Origin, a light-weight ad-blocking alternative that works out-of-the-box, but it's also a very powerful script-stopper if you use it like this excellent video explains
- Use the EFF's HTTPS Everywhere add-on to force secure Internet connections with the sites you visit
- Privacy Badger automatically learns to block invisible trackers
- Privacy Possum hamstrings common tracking methods by reducing and falsifying the data gathered
- Canvas Blocker prevents trackers from identifying your browser based on your fonts, and other unique characteristics. Also, visit about:config in Firefox and make sure privacy.resistFingerprinting is listed as true
- TrackMeNot sends random phrases to search engines, so they don't know which are real searches and which are fake
- Two guys who quit Facebook started Disonnect.me and created Privacy Pro (free and $24.99) a smart VPN to secure all your Internet connections, with ad tracker protection (I have this on 24/7 for mobile and Mac). Also, look into Wireguard
- For the best (though imperfect) security, use TorButton, so you can toggle The Onion Router (TOR) on and off in Firefox
Encrypt your internet browsing with a Virtual Private Network.
Money-grubbing entities like Comcast, AT&T, CenturyLink, Time-Warner, Frontier, Spectrum, etc—also known as internet service providers (or ISPs)—can and do track every website you visit over their internet connection.
They then sell your personal data to anyone or any company to use for any reason, all without asking your consent.
Luckily, you can better protect your personal data by encrypting all your Internet browsing—so they can't see shit—using an independently audited Virtual Private Network (VPN) like TunnelBear (sponsored link, yo). They're from Canada, but recently got bought by McAfee. Another good one is PIA (Private Internet Access).
Strengthen the weak link in your privacy chain by changing your DNS server.
A lot of people think that using a VPN completely protects them from ISP and other spying, but your DNS history still gives your surfing habits away. To truly protect your personal data, you need to close that last loophole by changing your DNS server to a third-party service. You could use Google's public DNS service, but I prefer to limit the info I give them, so I use CloudFlare's 184.108.40.206 service. Cloudflare is ostensibly privacy focused, but at least it isn't Google.
UPDATE: Mozilla has recently added the above functionality within Firefox! Just visit: Preferences > Network Settings > Enable DNS over HTTPS, and choose “Use default.”
That's it, you're safe! (Sort of. Okay, well, for now.)
Once you deploy ALL these steps to protect your personal data, you can surf the web semi-confidently knowing that most companies won't be able to spy on you. Only the NSA, the Russians, the Chinese, and serious neck-beard hackers will be able to see what you're doing online.
Totally worth it, right?