New technologies make our lives easier but they also invade our privacy in unprecedented ways
Ever felt you’re being watched online? Marina Stephanova and Barbora Kudzmanaite from Luxembourg professional development meetup MICSE share their tips on limiting your online trail.
Most of us have surely been there – you open a website and have the haunting feeling it's reading your mind, as you are immediately served ads related to the exact same things you have just been chewing over. Convenient, indeed, but one cannot help but wonder what trails ads networks follow to pop up on our screens and what digital footprints we leave.
New technologies make our lives easier but they also invade our privacy in unprecedented ways. The cell phone that keeps you in touch with everybody also tracks your location. Your searches online should be nobody's business, but search engines are logging your activities, and making this precious data available to any third party willing to pay enough. The same applies to social media, which eavesdrop on the content you see, like and share. But why do online companies spend so much time tracking us? The answer is simple, to ensure that perfectly targeted ads appear on your screens, making you click on them without a second thought.
Yet, one does not need to take such drastic measures as jettisoning all social media (remember #DeleteFacebook?) or fun apps, for instance, to protect one’s data. More importantly, you don't need to be a tech wiz to make your online experience safer and enjoyable. Here are a few practical tips to help you protect yourself online and make sure you only share as much information as you are actually willing on the websites and platforms that you access.
Avoid logging into your accounts from other people’s or public devices. If you really have to, make sure you have logged out when done. Note that some apps, such as Facebook messenger for phones, do not “forget” you and in order to delete your credentials, you may have to delete and re-install the whole app.
Check what permissions your phone apps have. Are there apps that have unexpected access to information such as call logs or camera that you feel they shouldn't need? Try revoking those permissions and if this breaks the app functionality, think again whether you really need that app.
Opt for a non-tracking search engine, such as DuckDuckGo. What makes it different is that visited websites will not receive data about your other searches, geolocation or browser. This is a trade-off between convenience and privacy, as you will not get to see results tailored to your location but it also means results will not get hidden based on that criterion.
Check the privacy settings of your browser and:
Gear up your browser with the right plugins. If the Tor browser sounds scary or just too much pain, you can use your preferred browser with the right plugins. Here are our favourite ones:
You probably know that a green padlock in the address bar or 'https' preface of a website's URL address usually means it’s secure – ‘S’ stands for ‘secure’. Data between the web server and the browser is encrypted, making it more difficult to steal information you are entering on the website or to redirect you to a rogue site. But there are many websites that do not support HTTPS or have links to unencrypted pages. The HTTPS Everywhere extension fixes these problems and is very easy to install and use. You can find more information about what data is visible via regular HTTP (unencrypted), via HTTPS and via Tor at www.eff.org and download HTTPSEverywhere from the Electronic Frontier Foundation website www.eff.org/https-everywhere.
Privacy Badger blocks spying eyes following you across the web. It learns about your browsing habits first so may seem to slow down loading but bear with it and soon it will work seamlessly. Some webpages may not load correctly but this is solvable as colour coded sliders let the user choose to allow or block certain tracking cookies. Privacy Badger is also by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Another wonderful option is uBlock Origin (do not confuse it for uBlock, which is not regularly supported any more), which blocks a lot of ads and tracking cookies, placing control in the user’s hands. It is very easy to install, too.
If you are ready to take it to the next level, check script blocking extensions, such as NoScript, which stop webpages from running scripts in your browser, thus protecting you from malware and even cryptominers that may try to use your computing power, slowing down and heating up your device. Unfortunately, as with the Privacy Badger, some pages may not load correctly but the decision to allow a page to run a script or not will be yours.
Advanced tips: If you feel confident to dive deeper, look into ways to protect against browser fingerprinting and consider using VPN. Interestingly enough, using a VPN at places such as airports has the added benefit of faster connection. So not only can it make your online experience more secure, but also more enjoyable. Note, though, that the VPN will have all your browsing data so choosing a VPN will largely depend on why you need it. But these are questions for an advanced level hacks story.
Got you hooked on privacy, safe internet behaviour and digital literacy? Check meetups by MICSE on micse.lu. Other useful events: Privacy Salon supported by Bee Secure and Crypto Apero by Security Made in Luxembourg.