Privacy and Security Tools for Personal Use
In This Article
The most common reasons that I hear for this apathy are things like, "I'm not doing anything I need to keep private," or "If I wanted my pictures private, I wouldn't post them," or my favorite: "Why would the government care what I do?" While these are valid personal beliefs, they are very specific examples in a sea of very diverse aspects of one's life. Using these to dismiss the value of personal security in that entire sea is simply irrational and inherently irresponsible. Some points of fact in rebuttal to this collateral dismissal:
- Advertisers want to know everything about you (literally anything and everything they can find out).
- With the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, many governments around the world are working hard to track movement and biometric data of their citizens. There are several which use any and all available data to identify dissenters.
- Internet Service Providers can readily analyze everything you do and send metadata to government agencies.
- Online visibility and transparency is essential to censorship efforts and content blocking.
Let's assume that I have gotten your attention. You probably want to know what I suggest you do about it. There are some factors, on which my answer depends.
There is something called a threat model. While this is typically used to determine the level of threat or risk to an individual or organization, it can certainly be used in this case. Think of a slider control. All the way to the left is zero. This position will represent convenience. All the way to the right is 100. This position will represent security.
You may notice the inverse relationship between the two. When you move towards one, it is at the expense of the other. Determining your threat model in this context is done by deciding where that slider should be based on your need or desire for both convenience and real personal security. Security is inconvenient and convenience is not secure. You need to figure out what is right for you.
The areas on which I will focus in this article are as follows:
- Secure and privacy-friendly browser
- Virtual Private Network
- Private search engine
- Private email
It is prudent to use a secure and privacy-friendly browser for three important reasons:
- Browsers have a large attack surface and can be compromised in many ways.
- By default, most browsers can contain lots of private information, including your browsing history, usernames, passwords, and autofill information, such as your name, address, etc.
- Browsers can reveal lots of identifying information about your location, system settings, hardware and much more to third parties.
Firefox is a great browser for both privacy and security after doing some modifications. It is highly customizable to give you the level of security and privacy you desire, while also being compatible with many browser extensions. Of course, there are many browsers on the market and choosing the best one all comes down to your own needs and tastes. Chrome, Opera, Safari and Vivaldi also get some attention, but they're not the best choices from a privacy standpoint.
- uBlock Origin – A powerful blocker for advertisements and tracking.
- HTTPS Everywhere – This forces an HTTPS connection with the sites you visit.
- Cookie AutoDelete – Deletes those unwanted tracking cookies.
- uMatrix – While this may be overkill for many users, this powerful add-on gives you control over requests that may be tracking you on various websites.
- Canvas Defender – Canvas Defender creates a unique and persistent noise that hides your real canvas fingerprint.
Using a good VPN (virtual private network) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect your privacy, secure your devices and also access blocked content online. A VPN is a critical tool to be using, especially with internet service providers spying on their users. Here are some of the problems that VPNs solve:
- ISP Spying – A VPN will encrypt and anonymize your internet connection. This makes your traffic completely unreadable to your ISP and other third parties.
- Blocked content – A VPN will let you easily get around blocked content and censorship. Simply connect to a VPN server in the region you need and access the website or stream as normal.
- IP and location tracking – Many websites and advertisers track users through their IP address. With a VPN, your IP address and location will be replaced by the VPN server's IP address and location.
The big search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing) record and track your searches, which helps them to build a user profile for their advertising partners. There are also a few "private search engines" that are now owned by advertising companies. For example, Startpage was bought out by System1, a pay-per-click ad company. Consider a privacy-friendly search engine such as https://duckduckgo.com/ instead.
Many of the popular email providers, such as Gmail, Yahoo and iCloud are not good choices when it comes to privacy. Would you want random people having full access to your emails, collecting data for targeted ads or passing the information on to third parties? This actually happens.
- Gmail gives third parties full access to emails and also tracks all of your purchases by reading the receipts in your inbox.
- Advertisers are allowed to scan Yahoo and AOL accounts to "identify and segment potential customers by picking up on contextual buying signals, and past purchases."
- Yahoo was found to be scanning emails in real-time for US surveillance agencies.
And while Gmail remains the most popular service in the world, you pay with your privacy. Consequently, as awareness about these issues grows, many people are seeking alternatives to Gmail. If you care about privacy and the security of your data, consider secure email services.