For most of us, almost all of our time on the computer is spent on a web browser. This time is so very valuable to advertisers, that Google paid Apple $9,000,000,000 (yes, 9 Billion dollars) a year just so that Google is the default search engine for Apple Safari.
Why is your web activity so incredibly valuable? Because by watching in literally microscopic detail what you search for, what you spend time looking at, and how you look at it creates a detailed profile of who you are. Google – as well as the other search engines – is able to predict your likes, dislikes, sexual preferences, and behaviors with far greater accuracy than anyone in your inner circle.
All of which allows advertisers to perform targeted marketing with laser precision.
Which by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What may be a bad thing is that this data is for sale to those other than in advertising. The most glaring example is what was done with your Facebook data in 2015-2016 once it made it into the hands of Cambridge Analytica.
If you aren’t already thinking What can I do about it?, may I recommend skipping the rest of this article and go back to watching cat videos.
There are many strategies to anonymizing or cloaking your web activities. How much and what to do depends on what your idea of balance between security and PITA looks like.
- TOR. For those requiring the very highest level of anonymizing and cloaking, changing your web browser to TOR is step 1. With TOR in use, your web traffic is bounced from TOR node to node a few times, stripping away identifiable information, before connecting with the target web site or service. The trade-off is a non-trivial performance hit. Because of this, TOR is not for everyone.
- VPN. Virtual Private Network is a web service that provides fully-encrypted communications between your computer/mobile device and the VPN server. From here the data is unencrypted and continued to the target web site or service. This blocks anyone from snooping on your local network and internet service provider from discovering what you are doing. It does, however, give your VPN provider the ability to see all. This is why it is vital to select a quality VPN provider. I’m fond of NordVPN and PerfectPrivacy.
- DNS. Domain Name System is the internet service that translates English names for a site to the actual server address. But DNS most likely tracks and records every site your device visits. To prevent this, use a DNS service that respects your privacy. I’m fond of CloudFlare. to do this, simply change whatever your current DNS settings are to use the CloudFlare servers – 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206.
- Search Engine. By default, 90% of us use Google as the search engine. And in case you have been sleeping in class, Google has become one of the world’s most profitable corporations by selling your search information. No worries! Just change your search engine to DuckDuckGo. Not only does DDG not track or record your searches, but it is also the best search engine available. This is because when using DDG, it submits your search criteria – anonymously – to all of the major search engines, and then compiles the results for you. To make DDG your search engine, open your browser to https://duckduckgo.com.
- Browser. DDG takes care of your searches, but if you are using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge, they are reporting on your travels as well. Best to use a browser that doesn’t tattle on you. Brave is excellent, as are Firefox and Safari.
- Trackers and Fingerprinting. Most commercial sites now use trackers. Trackers watch your every move on a site, and then continue to follow you to each subsequent site. You can stop trackers by installing an anti-tracker browser plug-in such as Ghostery. Just visit https://ghostery.com and then follow the on-screen instructions. In addition to blocking trackers, Ghostery also hides your digital fingerprint. This prevents websites from pinpointing your device as it travels the internet.
- Malicious Sites. As more computers have anti-virus software installed, criminal hackers are turning to compromising websites, which will inturn send the data they harvest from you to the criminal. To help block such sites, install a browser plug-in from the anti-virus developer Bitdefender called TrafficLight. Once installed, when visiting a known malicious site, TrafficLight will block the site from loading, and present a warning message to you. You then have the option to continue to the site, or back away.
- Up-To-Date Browser. Browsers play the cat-and-mouse game with criminal hackers, trackers, and advertisers by continually updating their software. Although most browsers are designed to auto-update, that process fails more often than developers admit. If using Chrome or Firefox, you can force an update by opening the browser’s About… menu. Brave is updated from its Check for Updates… menu. Edge and Safari are updated as part of routine OS updates.
- https. When connecting with a website using http://xyz.com, all communication between your device and the site is sent in clear text. Any snoop between your computer and the site is able to see everything. When connecting with a website using https://xyz.com, all communication is encrypted. Snoops can see the site connected with, but cannot see the data. Not all sites have upgraded to use https. For those who have, installing the HTTPSEverywere plug-in will force the https, even if you have entered http.