If you clicked the link to this article, you probably realize the extent to which our lives have migrated to a digitized landscape. Even before COVID-19, Americans spent nearly half their waking hours staring at a screen. Astonishingly, this number nearly doubled during last year’s stay-at-home restrictions, meaning that we now spend almost our entire waking lives in the digital aether. As a consequence, digital markets continue to grow year after year. Unsurprisingly, social media usage has increased since last year. And the normalization of remote work shows absolutely no sign of stopping. The digital armies of the internet continue their march unabated onto the private lives of unsuspecting individuals, much as Sauron swept across the lands of Rohan and Gondor in the Second Age.
You may be confused about what all this means. What’s a web browser? Why do websites track my online behavior? And what’s the fastest way to delete my google searches for illegal books on necromancy? You’ve most likely had all of these questions at one point or another. My goal is to cover a few of the basics.
In writing this article, I assume that the reader already considers online privacy to be a good in-and-of-itself, but is not yet proficiently versed in the subject. I do not provide a comprehensive analysis of absolutely everything that can be done to privatize the reader’s digital footprint. Instead, I suggest a launch point for anyone wishing to take first steps in protecting their online privacy.
When it comes to online privacy, the browser that you use is key. If the internet is a city, your browser is your car, and—as much as Elon Musk would like to argue otherwise—you should be in full control of your car. Your browser has access to anything and everything you do on the web, effectively making it the sole gatekeeper between you and the Internet.
Many browser developers (GOOGLE, cough, cough) spy on their users to generate targeted profiles, which they sell to advertisers. If a browser developer’s business model revolves around advertising, or if you cannot ascertain where they make their money from, the browser is almost certainly spying on you. Google holds almost a third of all digital ad revenue, placing its browser’s trustworthiness slightly higher than that of an active KGB agent but still lower than that of a starved wolf.
However, not all browser developers are evil at heart. For example, Mozilla’s business model primarily relies on royalties paid out by various search engines featured on its browser, Firefox. This means that Mozilla profits from the search engines themselves, rather than upon selling user data to advertisers. As a non-profit, Mozilla also receives a considerable amount of funds in donations and grants each year to sustain its work. This reduces the incentive to harvest user data, making Mozilla a favorite for privacy enthusiasts.
With that in mind, it’s best to choose a browser that features privacy as one of its top priorities. Firefox and Brave have both forged a reputation as some of the best privacy-oriented browsers. Apple recently made significant steps in increasing the privacy of its users, making Safari a good option as well. If you’re like me and simply can’t give up the look and feel of Google Chrome, I’d recommend checking out Ungoogled Chromium, which markets itself as “Google Chromium, sans dependency on Google web services.” Ostensibly, this strips the browser of any ability to report back to your shadowy overlords at Alphabet Inc.
As a final note, it’s important to understand that usability and security are frequently at odds with one another. The most secure browsers are typically harder to use, do not provide as much functionality, and, frankly, look worse. So, when going browser shopping, consider how important privacy is to you in relation to other properties and make an informed decision from there.
If a shady stranger in a leather trench coat offers you a powerful, but unproven, guide to acing midterms for only $13.99, you might think it’s a great deal. But you’ve just met him on the street. Would you really give him your phone number for his “rewards program”? Although you may undoubtedly become a loyal customer, this is probably not the sort of character you want in possession of your private data.
For some reason, we give out personal information all the time without realizing it. We might not be comfortable doing it in-person, but we don’t hesitate online. When creating a digital account, it’s not uncommon to enter your phone number, email address, full name, or even more revealing information such as your physical address or date of birth. This is not a good practice.
The website haveibeenpwned keeps a regularly updated data set of publicly acknowledged data breaches and hacks from over the years. While the website’s full data set isn’t available to the public, you can use it to check if your own email or phone number was ever stolen by hackers in a data breach. Should you choose to do this, you will be immediately reminded of all the useless and forgotten accounts your younger self created on horribly insecure websites for absolutely no reason. Unfortunately, databases that store this kind of information are notoriously difficult to manage securely, and it’s only a matter of time before hackers steal this information and sell it to advertisers, political campaigners, and other assorted spawn of Satan.
Moving forward, you might want to try a highly sophisticated technique that I call “give the bastards nothing.” It’s hard to avoid giving out your email when creating an online presence, but does www.cuteturtles.com really need your address, social security number, and the name of your third-born child? If a website is demanding information that seems irrelevant to their platform, you wouldn’t be such a horrible person for giving them a random entry. So, from now on, your address is “752 Evergreen Terrace,” your phone number “867-5309,” and your date of birth “July 4th, 1776” (Sorry Homer Simpson/Jenny/America!).
Using a VPN
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have received considerable publicity recently. If you are unfamiliar with this term, consider the following example:
· Alice wants to send a letter to Bob through USPS, but someone at USPS has been reading her mail.
· Alice has to send the letter through USPS, but she doesn’t want USPS to know what she sent or who she sent it to.
· To accomplish this, Alice gives her letter to a private mailman named Charlie. He places Alice’s envelope into a second larger envelope, addresses the parcel to Devin, and places the parcel in the mail.
· USPS sees a letter from Charlie to Devin and delivers the message to Devin.
· Devin then opens the parcel and delivers Alice’s envelope to Bob.
In this example, Alice is you, Bob is the website you are visiting, your internet-service provider (ISP) is USPS, Charlie and Devin are the VPN, and Alice’s physical address is your IP address. ISPs constantly monitor your digital user activity. And a VPN is great, because it makes it more difficult for ISPs to track your online behavior.
As an added bonus, a VPN prevents any web-trackers that rely on using your IP address from functioning. (If you aren’t sure what an IP address is, check out this explanation)
The main drawback of VPNs is that they don’t completely mitigate the problem. There’s still someone with access to the requests you are making online; now it’s just the (presumably) privacy-conscious people at the VPN company instead of those at the ISP.
It’s worth noting that a VPN doesn’t do anything to mitigate other types of digital tracking, such as browser fingerprinting. Another downside of using a VPN is that you will encounter a sleepless hoard of angry Captchas on many websites you visit. When using a VPN, you actually share your IP address with many other people using that same VPN. Depending on how large the VPN is, you may be sharing an IP address with hundreds or even thousands of people. If even a small portion of those people are all using the same website (say Google or Facebook), it will appear as though the same computer is making hundreds or thousands of simultaneous requests. Although many of us would like to pretend we are Neo from the Matrix, the browser will just assume you are a bot and send you a Captcha to verify your humanity.
Despite the downsides of using a VPN, hiding your IP address is nothing to sniff at. For as cheap as many top VPNs are, it’s worth at least considering.
We live in an increasingly “internetized” world. Just as you wouldn’t want somebody observing everything you do in your home, place of work, school, club, or other environments, you probably don’t want them snooping on your internet activity. Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to mitigate this.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.