Improve Your Privacy On The Internet

Editor’s Note:

Disclaimer: In this article, I will mention a number of products. I have not received any form of compensation for mentioning these products. They are listed in this article because I use them.

Why is my privacy on the Internet at Risk?

This is a good question and can be answered in two words: Power and Money. Right now Big Tech and their 3rd Party Advertisers are scrambling to gather as much information about each one of us as possible. Powerful algorithms categorize your data into large information pools that refer directly back to you, as well as categories that do not directly connect to you. From the direct connections, your political leanings, religious beliefs, number of children, who you associate with, social activities, where you travel (or want to travel), ethnicity, sexual orientation, income level, your education level and where you went to school, hobbies, health information, and much more are being discovered. Even more concerning about this data collection is that YOU have little or no control over how your data is going to be used, and “who” is using it.

The result of Big Tech’s data collection and multi-leveled categorization of your information can be helpful to you, it can be used to manipulate you, and it can be used against you. Voltaire said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. So this discussion boils down to this: To improve your privacy on the Internet, do you trust an unregulated Big Tech to use all the information they have collected about you responsibly?

How is my data being collected by Big Tech?

The video below from Rob Braxman (YouTube Channel: Rob Braxman Tech; The Internet Privacy Guy; https://brax.me) provides an excellent discussion of how Big Tech is currently involved in your Internet privacy and what Google is about to unleash. If you are even moderately concerned about your privacy on the Internet, this video is a must-see.

10 Data Collection Countermeasures To Improve Your Privacy On The Internet

Before venturing any further in this discussion, there are three concepts you need to be aware of:

  • For all the wonderful things that the Internet can do for us, situations can occur that make it very hostile. Besides Big Tech becoming an Orwellian simile for Big Brother, there are a seemingly endless stream of predators, scam artists, and hackers to guard yourself against. More to the point: To improve your privacy on the Internet, you have to keep your guard up.
  • There is no way to 100% safely transmit and/or receive data over the Internet. That being said, in every major city there are dark, poorly lit streets. Regardless of the possibilities for potential danger, people still walk down these streets. Some of these people become victims of crime. Compared to the number of people using these dark poorly lit streets, the percentage of victims is relatively small. The percentage of victims would be even smaller if everyone that walked down those streets had an attack-trained 100 pound German Shepard walking with them, or a Navy Seal as a body guard. In this case, it seems the better you are prepared to deal with the potential of hostility, in most cases, the lease likely you will actually have to deal with it. The moral here: the more you protect your data, the less likely you’ll loose it.
  • Finally, levels of security and convenience are inversely proportionate. The more you secure yourself as you travel through the Web, the less convenient that travel will become. The Bad Guys are counting on you to choose convenience over security. Don’t.

What follows are some ways to protect your privacy on the Internet. Because of the breadth of this topic, going into a “deep dive” on each point might create a document rivaling the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. So, the descriptions will be brief, and where possible I will provide links to more detailed information.

  1. Your Computer’s Operating System. The Internet acts as a great pathway to provide Big Tech with your information. Your Free Big Tech operating system and many of its Free programs collect and transmit lots of data about you. Your cell phone/tablet suffers from this malady as well. Here are a couple of articles on the subject you might find interesting:

Apple’s Empty Grandstanding About Privacy, The Atlantic, Ian Bogost

Microsoft Finally Reveals What Data Windows 10 Really Collects, The Verge, Tom Warren.

One of the best practices you can use to cut down on this flow of your data and improve your privacy on the Internet is to limit the data going to Big Tech. Check your operating system’s config or preference program, and usually, in the Privacy section, there will be some checkboxes to allow or disallow data being sent back to the operating system’s mother-ship. This works for both computers and cell phones. The graphics below are from Apple’s Big Sur. Though the second graphic is only focusing on Apple Advertising, you should review each item in the left window-pane.

System_Preferences Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Apple System Preferences
apl_adv Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Turning Off Personalized Ads

You might find that my solution to Big Tech’s data grab from my Big Tech Free operating system is extreme, but I simply choose to minimize my use of THEIR operating system. In my office, I use two computers. A fairly new Macbook Pro laptop, and a fairly ancient IMac (2008, now with an SSD, and 4 Gigs of Ram). Most of the heavy lifting I do on a computer is video editing, graphics, and photo editing. This I do on the laptop. Research, shopping, and so on, which I do on the Internet, I do on the iMac (now running Mint Linux rather than OS X). As far as I know, Mint Linux does not collect anything significant (telemetry???) data, if anything at all. Consequently, as a result of my use of Mint Linux, Apple misses out on grabbing a lot of my information.

2. Domain Name Servers. The Domain Name System (DNS) is the phonebook of the Internet. Humans access information online through domain names, like nytimes.com or espn.com. Web browsers interact through Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. DNS translates domain names to IP Addresses so browsers can load Internet resources [1].

A DNS resolver is usually provided either directly, or in some cases indirectly, by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). You can change your DNS resolver (either in the Network configuration of your Operating System or in your Router’s Network configuration). Depending upon which DNS resolver you choose, you can pick up a little speed in your Internet travel, add some security features, and in some cases do some adblocking.

Big Tech also knows that a DNS resolver is a great way to collect data from you. Letting Google supply DNS service to you would be like letting the fox watch the hen-house, – at the very least, Google would be tracking everywhere you have been on the Internet. There are a good number of DNS providers out there. Do a little homework before you choose, and be sure your choice is not a DNS resolver that sells your connection data to advertisers.

I use Cloudflare as a DNS service. It does not sell user data to advertisers, and It is free. In your Network settings, change your Primary DNS Server to 1.1.1.1 and the Secondary DNS Server to 1.0.0.1.

For more information about DNS resolvers and how they work, click HERE.

3. Virtual Private Network(VPN). A VPN encrypts all network traffic between your device and the VPN provider and provides a different visible URL (other than yours). With the right set of conditions and circumstances, a VPN makes it more difficult to track (and/or hack) “you” on the Net. Here are some disadvantages [2]:

  1. Some VPNs may slow your connection speed.
  2. You could be blocked from using certain services or websites, like Netflix.
  3. VPNs are illegal or tightly controlled in certain countries, such as China.
  4. There’s no way to tell just how encrypted your data is when using a VPN.
  5. Some VPNs – particularly free VPNs – may log and sell your browsing activity to third parties.
  6. You could experience breaks in your connection.
  7. A VPN could give you a false sense of online impunity, leading you to take risks when browsing online.
  8. Free VPNS can often be worse than not using a VPN at all.

Subscribing to a VPN service is definitely a case of Caveat Emptor. From my personal experience, on a list of really good VPNs, Nord is at the top of the list.

For more information about Nord VPN click HERE.

4. Search Engines. Keeping track of your searches is another source of gaining information about you. If the sale of this collection to advertisers was limited to products and services, it could be helpful to you, and relatively harmless. Sadly the breadth of the data collections being sold is far more extensive.

brave_search Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Brave Search For My Favorite Website

Use Duck Duck Go or the new kid on the block Brave Search as your search engine. Neither of these search engines collects or sells your search histories. They both share the same drawback, at least for now on some very technical information the results can be lacking. For me when this happens, I have a Firefox browser configured with Google as the main search engine, and I finish my search from there.

5. Internet Browser. Your browser, and how you use it can literally hemorrhage information to Big Tech, scammers, hackers, and so on. As in DNS resolvers and search engines, using a FREE browser from Big Tech (i.e., Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome) allows THEM to look over your shoulder as you use the Internet.

brave_home_page-3-1024x614 Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Brave Browser Sart Up Page

There are a number of browsers now that do a great job of keeping you and your searches from being tracked (as well as doing some adblocking). My favorite browser is Brave. Yes, it’s from the same people that developed the Brave Search Engine. The Brave browser uses Chrome’s engine, but from there on the browser remains Google-Free. Here are some of its features (if you are having trouble reading this graphic, right-click on it, and in the drop-down box, select open in new tab.

brave_features_2-1024x646 Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips

For more information about the Brave Browser click HERE.

6. Browser Plugins. From my modest website development experience, I have learned that the fewer plugins you use, the safer you are. This same concept carries over to web browsers. That Free plugin you installed can pack code that will have it gathering information on you from your web searches, and might even be picking up the passwords you use to access accounts you use on the Internet.

I use only three plugins. One is for my password manager, one for my VPN, and Privacy Badger (a plugin that disallows any visible or invisible 3rd party scripts or images that appear to be tracking me even after receiving a Do Not Track header from my browser). For more information about Privacy Badger, click HERE.

Privacy_Badger_block Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Privacy Badger Blocking Tracker
Privacy_Badger_Link Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Privacy Badger Blocking Facebook Link Tracking

7. Cloud Services. If you want to protect your privacy on the Internet, then limit what you put out there. Do you really think that storing your documents, artwork, photos, or videos with a Big Tech (or for that matter, any…) cloud service is a good idea? Your cloud service provider can comb your data with algorithms and sell what they have collected (pretty similar to mining your email) to advertisers. You say, “Isn’t my data encrypted on the cloud service?” It should be. If it is, how well is it encrypted, and just who has the encryption keys?

Synology_DS115j_thumb800 Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Synology NAS

I use a Synology Network Attached Storage device (NAS) for my cloud service (as well as for my network server). This Linux-based little box has been running 24/7 for three years and has incredible performance. Certainly, this cloud service is more expensive to use than a Big Tech or other tech-company-provided cloud service. On the other hand, I still have control of my data. How much is keeping your data private worth to you? To me, the overhead cost of the NAS is well worth the investment.

Tip: Secure your data by doing routine backups. There are plenty of devices and ways to do this. An example: I have my original working data files and duplicate copies of those working files on two separate devices in two separate locations. In this way, if my original files are compromised, I have two copies. If a backup fails, I still have the original and another copy. Rsync (a free command line program found natively in Mac and Linux) is the program I use for the backups. I learned that I needed to do backups as the result of a serious fail. Be smart. Backup.

8. Two Factor Identification. One way to improve your privacy on the Internet is to keep someone from stealing or using your access information. On any website that you need to log in to that offers 2FA, set up 2FA, and use it.

yk5nfc_phone_laptop_low Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips

To add additional security to your 2FA logins, you can use a device like Yubikey. This little key works with its own authenticator (software installed on a desktop computer or mobile device) or is plugged into a USB port on a computer. A number of websites support the latter direct connection to a USB port. In this example, you log into a site using your username and password, then when prompted by the website, insert the key and press a small button on the key itself, and you are logged in. When you use the Yubikey proprietary authenticator, the key is either scanned by a mobile phone or entered into a computer and a button push creates a display of all websites you have configured for 2FA. On the authenticator, find the website you wish to access, then type in the code on the device when prompted by the website, and you are “in”. Either process, using the Youbikey makes phishing and man in the middle attacks very very very difficult to use against you.

For more information, read my review on the Yubikey by clicking HERE.

9. The Onion Routing Protocol (TOR). This is probably one of the better ways to improve your privacy on the Internet. Here, your data is encrypted 3 times on its journey to the destination server. The easiest way to use TOR is with a TOR Browser (torproject.org), or use the TOR as an option on the Brave browser.

Tip: Using TOR (or for that matter, most tracking countermeasures) on the Internet is like being a submarine underwater. Once you log in somewhere, your submarine just surfaced, and you are visible. Only log in when your visibility on the Internet is not a concern.

How TOR works is beyond the scope of this document. Here is a very good article that explains it at a level for anyone with Zero knowledge of networking or TOR[3], click HERE.

There are some downsides to TOR. Going through three different nodes (or servers) slows down your access time to your destination website. As your IP Address changes along the way to your destination, your final address might be an IP Address from Switzerland. If you are doing research or simply reading, this is no big deal; however, if you want to shop on Amazon, pricing could be a little confusing, and placing an order from Switzerland (especially if you are really from another country) might also be troublesome.

10. Tails. Improve your privacy on the Internet and browse the Web like James Bond. Tails is a free fully-featured Debian Linux distribution, configured specifically for user anonymity and to circumvent censorship. The whole package is designed to run as a live operating system installed on a USB drive, SD card, or DVD.

Tails includes[4]:

  • Tor Browser with uBlock, a secure browser and an ad-blocker
  • Thunderbird, for encrypted emails
  • KeePassXC, to create and store strong passwords
  • LibreOffice, an office suite
  • OnionShare, to share files over Tor
  • and many more!

To prevent mistakes:

  • Applications are blocked automatically if they try to connect to the Internet without Tor.
  • Everything in the Persistent Storage is encrypted automatically.
  • Tails does not write anything to the hard disk. All the memory is deleted when shutting down.
tails-1024x640 Improve Your Privacy On The Internet How To Linux OS X Security Tips
Tails Desktop

I have Tails installed on a USB drive, and it has worked on both PC’s and Macs. You can save data and operating system settings to Persistent Storage (an encrypted storage area on the drive you are using). When you restart Tails, everything, other than the contents of Persistent Storage returns back to its original installed state

For me, the biggest downside of Tails is in its latency, – it is not fast. However, speed may not be as important as safety, especially if for example you are writing an unflattering article about a country’s government, while you are still in that country.

The bottom line: If you really need to improve your privacy on the Internet, and improve it in a BIG way, Tails is the best way to do it.

For more information about Tails, click HERE.

Summary

I use most of these 10 data collection countermeasures on a daily basis and have done so for nearly a year now. Most of them are free. The bottom line is that in deciding to do any of this you will have to weigh cost and inconvenience (if any) to the amount of security you are getting and feel you need. Be safe……

Sources

  1. https://blog.cloudflare.com/announcing-1111/.
  2. https://vpnoverview.com/vpn-information/disadvantages-vpn/ Chris Bluvshtein 7/05/2021
  3. https://skerritt.blog/how-does-tor-really-work/
  4. https://tails.boum.org/about/index.en.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/01/apples-hypocritical-defense-data-privacy/581680/. The Atlantic, Ian Boost

https://www.theverge.com/2017/4/5/15188636/microsoft-windows-10-data-collection-documents-privacy-concerns. The Verge, Tom Warren

https://privacybadger.org/


By prometheus

Husband. Father. Grandfather. World class Geek.

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