The Internet is watching you, and it’s no secret. If you google a car or like a cat, almost every site will offer you a car (or a pet store). Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal?
To find out how users themselves feel about the problem of privacy on the Web, we polled almost 12,000 people from 21 countries. It turned out that more than half (56%) of them do not believe it is possible to fully protect themselves from online surveillance. Perhaps they are right in some respects, but it is possible and necessary to significantly limit unauthorized access to your personal data. And it’s not that hard to do: Here’s what tools can help you keep your privacy online.
By default, browsers store some of the information about the sites you visit on your computer:
Privacy Through Browsers
Much of this information can be seen by online surveillance mechanisms. It is used to find out what sites you visit and to determine your interests. Regularly deleting this data will make it very difficult to compile such a dossier. Here’s how you can do it in Chrome, Internet Explorer, Edge, Firefox, Opera, and Safari.
By the way, you don’t have to get rid of temporary data manually. Most browsers can be set to automatically delete cookies every time you close them. Information on how to do this can be found in references such as Firefox, Chrome, and Edge.
Remember, however, that deleting temporary data will also deprive you of the convenience it provides. The need to re-enter logins and passwords on all sites every time is especially unpleasant for many people. Fortunately, it’s easy to compensate for this – a password manager can help.
If you want sites to remember something about you, such as long-form fields that you’ve already filled out, you can opt for milder measures: prohibiting sites from using third-party or “tracking” cookies, the kind of cookies that in the vast majority of cases are needed just for tracking and are not required for anything else. You can read how to do this with the help of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Edge.
If you don’t want to tinker with the settings or if you don’t want to hide all of your browser histories, but only certain sites, you can use incognito mode. In this mode, the browser does not save information about the viewed pages, cookies, entered passwords, and other data. At the same time, “incognito” tabs do not interfere with your use of regular tabs and do not delete what the browser has already saved.
You can switch to “incognito” mode by opening the settings menu (in most browsers it may look like three dots, three bars, or a gear wheel) and selecting “New Incognito Window” in Chrome, “Private Window” in Firefox, “New InPrivate Window” in Edge, “New Private Window” in Safari or “New Private Window” in Opera.
However, as with completely clearing cookies and browser data, the incognito mode will not protect you from being tracked on individual sites, hide your IP address, or make you invisible to those who have access to your network.
There are a lot of browsers these days, and each one has its own approach to privacy. The most popular browser, Google Chrome, collects all kinds of data about you-even the characters you type in the address bar. It also, by default, allows tracking cookies and other tools to help build a dossier on you. However, not all known browsers follow the same policy.
For example, Mozilla puts privacy at the top of the list. By default, the Firefox browser blocks known trackers (surveillance tools used by sites) in “incognito” windows and allows you to enable this option for normal sessions as well. Of course, it won’t protect you from all possible ways to gather information about you, but it will significantly reduce the amount of such information and at the same time speed up the loading of sites.
By the way, Mozilla has a separate private browser for mobile devices, Firefox Focus. It not only blocks trackers but also allows you to delete all the data about the visited sites with one click of the Erase button.
The Safari browser, as of summer 2018, prevents the collection of digital fingerprints – information about your system, the browsers and plugins you use, time zone, encodings, and so on. These fingerprints are so unique that they make it easy to track you, even if you delete all temporary data after you leave the Internet.
Safari shows sites anonymized information about your system, making your device look like many others. The browser also has a set of tools to block snooping through social network widgets on sites and other trackers.
Use of Onion Routers
One of the most secure browsers out there is Tor. It’s a superstructure on top of a network of so-called “onion routers” that mask your IP address and prevent sites from knowing where they’re coming from. Every request you make goes through at least three of these routers, and the data remains encrypted right up to the last one. Herein lies the main disadvantage of Tor – you don’t know who owns that last router, whose owner can see all the details of your request. In addition, the “onion network” has other disadvantages. For example, it works significantly slower. So we would not recommend Tor to ordinary people.
There are other browsers that protect you from online surveillance to some extent, such as Epic Privacy Browser, SRWare Iron Browser, Brave, and Double. However, it is worth remembering that the less popular the browser, the more likely it is to be incompatible with the sites you are used to using, and there are fewer plugins for it.
Even if you use a trusted browser, search engines can follow you. If you send a query through Google or Yandex, these companies will store it in their archives. However, there are alternative search engines that do not track your requests.
The most famous one is DuckDuckGo. It doesn’t save queries or device data, and it doesn’t pass information about you to ad networks. DuckDuckGo takes both its own indexing and the search results of over a hundred different systems, without telling them who searched for what.
The StartPage search engine uses Google output. The developers of this system pay the search giant money so that it doesn’t ask for your information. StartPage also offers anonymous access to sites from search results.
You can also get rid of surveillance with the help of special programs and extensions, such as the popular ad blocker AdBlock Plus, which at the same time prevents social networks from tracking your actions (this function must be enabled in the settings). The list of trackers blocked by default can also be expanded.
The developers of the search engine DuckDuckGo also have their own extension that disables trackers. The service also offers its own private browser for mobile devices on Android and iOS.
Firefox users can install the Facebook Container extension that prevents Facebook from collecting data about them on other sites. The social network will still be able to track your posts and likes, but will not follow you around the Internet. Note: This plugin exists only for Firefox.
Another way to hide from intrusive surveillance is to use a VPN on your PC connection. A VPN server spoofs your IP address with its own, and the IP changes with each connection, which means sites can’t track your location and link your activities to accounts you’re not logged into.
In addition, a VPN encrypts the data being transmitted, preventing your ISP from keeping track of where you go (yes, yes, ISPs like to keep track of their customers, too).
However, keep in mind that the information that is collected by social networks and search engines, as well as from trackers on websites VPN will not fully protect you. So it should be used in conjunction with other tools, which we described above.
As you can see, all is not hopeless: hiding from surveillance even by such ubiquitous giants as Google and Facebook is quite realistic – if you know what tools to use. If you are wondering what else you can do to protect your personal data, we have some additional tips.
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