Avoiding being monitored online these days is more difficult than ever. Other than allowing your devices to gather dust under lock and key, there are straightforward and often inexpensive ways to protect your privacy when using the Internet. In this guide, we list ten of our favourite methods.
1. Use secure email
If you’re using one of the better known email services such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, and are unable to switch to another, more secure provider, then consider adding a webmail encryption extension such as Mailvelope or SecureGmail (for use only with Gmail).
These extensions can be added to the Chrome and Firefox browsers and make use of OpenPGP encryption to secure your emails by blocking Google’s servers access to unencrypted data.
If you are considering more secure webmail providers, have a look at Hushmail, a popular alternative offering private email accounts without ads, integrated encryption and unlimited email aliases. You can try Hushmail for free, which includes a 25MB allowance. Accounts with greater storage are charged at a yearly premium.
Another alternative is Swiss-hosted Kolab, which offers an individual or ‘group manager’ account for a monthly premium.
Note that encrypted webmail services, although much more secure than most, are still obliged to share data with legal authorities if so required by a court of law.
Disposable email addresses
One more option on the subject of emails is the use of Disposable Email Addresses (DEAs).
DEAs are temporary and anonymous email addresses that can be generated as and when required and then discarded after use. Their main use is to avoid receiving spam mail when filling out online forms that require an email address. Protecting your personal account against spam is an important part of avoiding identity theft and viruses.
DEAs are not especially secure since they are designed specifically for instances when you want to avoid supplying your personal email address.
2. Block trackers and spyware
Many websites track visitor activity to determine browsing habits. Many large services including Google and Facebook implement sophisticated tracking techniques to monitor the user’s online and offline activities, with the aim of building an even more accurate user profile for targeted advertising.
Similarly to authorised tracking, spyware is its illegal counterpart which likewise works by infiltrating a computer through cookies, trojans and adware in order to gather information on the user through his/her browsing.
Such trackers operate rather covertly, however, free extensions can be downloaded to block them from running.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation runs one such extension called Privacy Badger, which detects and blocks unwanted trackers as well as any other kind of spyware.
Another option is Ghostery, which has a record of 1,900 companies that use trackers. For both extensions, users can decide which trackers they would like to block and which they are happy to keep running.
Extensions themselves operate discretely in the background.
3. Use Tor
Tor was first developed by the US Navy as a means of protecting government communications. Essentially, it is a network of virtual tunnels that uses strong encryption to ensure user privacy. It allows users to explore the ‘deep’ or ‘hidden’ web, where websites can be set up anonymously and users can communicate in private.
Thanks to its encrypted tunnels, it’s difficult for websites to track online activities and access location data.
When a user begins sending data through the network, this data is wrapped into an encrypted packet. Part of the packet’s header, containing identifiable information on the user, is then removed. Tor then encrypts the rest of the data and routes it through its extensive network servers, before it reaches its intended destination.
The Tor browser is free and can be downloaded from its official website.
That’s not to say that Tor isn’t without its problems. Often, users have complained that Tor is not user friendly and suffers from slow speeds. Also, despite strong encryption, it has been claimed that Tor has been compromised in the past.
4. Use a proxy server
A proxy server can be used as an intermediary between a computer and the internet. By using a proxy, users can mask their true IP address, thus protecting online anonymity and overcoming geo-blocks.
As with VPNs, there are numerous free and fee-based proxy services available. One of the more trusted options and easily accessible options is the free, in-browser proxy service offered by VPN provider Hide My Ass!.
5. Use HTTPS Everywhere
Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS, is essentially the encrypted version of HTTP.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) runs HTTPS Everywhere – a nifty and highly useful extension for Firefox, Chrome and Opera web browsers.
The extension forces websites that otherwise run unencrypted HTTP to run HTTPS, creating an added SSL/TLS encryption layer to the communication between your computer or device and the web server. In turn, it significantly reduced the likelyhood of man-in-the-middle attacks.
6. Delete cookies
In correlation to our earlier suggestion on blocking trackers, it is also highly recommended to regularly delete cookies from your computer/device.
Cookies are tiny bits of data that are automatically stored on your system after you visit a website. This data allows websites to remember you quickly and easily if you go back.
In most cases, the purpose of cookies is to provide users with a more personalised experience for future visits and for targeted advertising purposes. Cookies can be intrusive, logging how often you visit a certain site, how many times you’ve clicked and which content you’ve accessed, which is why some countries require websites to add clearly visible disclaimers on their homepage for first-time visitors.
Deleting your cookies reduces the amount of data websites hold. This can be done in your browser history within settings.
Opt out of tracking for ads
Additionally, it is advisable to periodically opt-out of tracking for advertising. The following services (for USA, Canada and EU residents only) will identify all the cookies associated with your computer and what they are being used for by companies. You will also get the option to opt out of all tracking for ads:
- Digital Advertising Alliance (USA)
- Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada
- European Digital Advertising Alliance
7. Use an alternative search engine
Aside from Google, there are numerous search engines, many of which aren’t half as intrusive.
Google uses a personalised search history to filter results according to your previous searches. Google also tracks your search habits through above-mentioned browser cookies. You can disable personalised searching through Search Tools > All Results > Verbatim, but if you really want a secure search engine consider DuckDuckGo or Ixquick, both of which take user privacy seriously and promise never to track user behaviour.
Also, check out our very own, detailed guide to alternative search engines for more information and options.
8. Pay with anonymous currency
There are now many anonymous crypto-currencies available, including the well-publicised Bitcoin and Litecoin.
One of the latest additions is Darkcoin, an open source crypto-currency based on Bitcoin software. Essentially, it is a more private version of Bitcoin though only a limited number of merchants currently accept it. For a detailed list have a look here.
Paying anonymously for online services and goods makes a lot of sense, especially considering the present risks of credit card and identity fraud. Most VPN providers accept Bitcoin or other anonymous payment methods.
You can find a detailed list of available crypto-currencies on this wiki page.
9. Use a password manager
Passwords are a crucial gateway between you and your private information on the Internet. Expectedly, however, they are susceptible to all sorts of targeted breaches. The risk becomes even greater especially if you use the same password for several accounts or websites.
Likewise, passwords are also easy to forget, especially if you have more than a few to remember.
These managers encrypt all of your passwords behind a single master password, allowing you to securely access your login database to retrieve from your pool of access keys.
For more details have a read of our guide: Top 5 Password Managers.
10. Subscribe to a VPN
Of course, in last place, but perhaps the best tool to protect your online privacy is by using a VPN service.
All VPNs work by masking your IP address, which identifies you online, as well as encrypting all of your web traffic, using a secure virtual tunnel.
Levels of encryption vary though most well-known providers use AES or SSL secured 128-bit or 256-bit (encryption) keys over common VPN protocols including OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec and SSTP. These protocols are regarded as very secure, and help ensure anonymity and freedom from tracking and surveillance while connected to the Internet.
VPNs also allow users to switch to a server of their choice, which helps bypass geographic restrictions.
There are many VPN providers to choose from, most of which charge a relatively small monthly subscription. Different providers offer different services, with varying features, so be sure to look around before you settle on one. For more information on VPNs and how they work, have a browse through our VPN 101 guide.
Aside from these tips, you might also consider your social media usage – in exchange for a ‘free’ service, companies like Facebook and Twitter are known to harvest huge amounts of user data.
Other tips include the use of alternative browsers, operating systems that value security, use of virtual machines and browsing in Incognito or stealth mode.
That said, here at BestVPNz we like to emphasise active and intelligent use of software based on solutions rather than abstinence!