It is no secret that we are all being watched online. Google a make of automobile or like a cat picture and you will soon be inundated with car and pet store ads on almost every site you visit. And you most likely haven’t forgotten the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica.
To find out what users think about online privacy (or the lack thereof), we interviewed almost 12,000 people from 21 countries. It turned out that more than half (56%) do not believe it is possible to protect oneself fully against online tracking. They may be right to some extent, but it is possible — and necessary — to restrict third party access to your personal data as much as feasible. And it’s not too difficult to achieve. We explain here what tools can help preserve your online privacy.
Delete temporary browser files
By default, browsers store various bits of information on your computer about websites you visit:
- The cache is storage that contains images and other Web data. Once stored, the data does not need to be downloaded from the server again, thereby speeding up page response times.
- Cookies are small files that, among other things, enable websites to remember your device and not log you out when the browser is closed.
- Web browsing history.
A large portion of this information is visible to online trackers. It is used to find out which websites you visit and to identify your interests. Deleting this data on a regular basis will make it harder for such tools to profile your online activity. Here’s how to do it in Chrome, Internet Explorer, Edge, Firefox, Opera, and Safari.
But remember that deleting temporary data will deprive you of its benefits. The need to reenter login credentials on lots of different websites can be annoying for some people. But there is help at hand with the use of a password manager.
If you want websites to remember certain details about you (such as your name when filling out ubiquitous online forms), you can take a softer line by banning websites from using third-party cookies — a type of cookie used for tracking purposes and little else. See Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Edge help for details.
Use incognito mode
If you do not want to mess around with settings, or have no need to hide the entire browser history from prying eyes, only individual sites, you can use incognito mode. In this mode the browser does not store information about visited pages, cookies, passwords, and other data. On the other hand, incognito tabs do not prevent you from using normal tabs and do not delete what the browser has already saved.
You can switch to incognito mode by opening the settings menu (three dots, three bars, or a gear icon in most browsers) and selecting New incognito window in Chrome, New private window in Firefox, Safari, or Opera, Incognito mode in Yandex.Browser, or New InPrivate window in Edge.
As in the case of clearing all cookies and browser data, incognito mode does not protect you from snooping on certain websites, does not hide your IP address, and does not make you invisible to anyone with access to your network.
Select your browser wisely
Each browser has its own approach to privacy. The most popular of them, Google Chrome, collects all kinds of data about you — even what you enter in the URL bar. On top of that, with default settings it allows tracking cookies and other user-profiling tools. But not all the major browsers operate on the same policy.
Mozilla, for example, puts privacy front and center. By default, the Firefox browser blocks known trackers in incognito windows, and allows this option to be enabled for regular sessions. Sure, that won’t safeguard against all possible ways to harvest information about you, but it will significantly reduce their amount — and speed up page loading.
Incidentally, Mozilla offers a separate private browser for mobile devices: Firefox Focus. It not only blocks trackers, but also lets users delete all data collected on visited sites simply by clicking the Erase button.
Since summer 2018, Safari has been preventing the harvesting of digital fingerprints: system information, the browsers and plugins you use, time zones, encodings, and so forth. These fingerprints are so reliably unique that they can readily be used to track you even if you delete all temporary data regularly.
Safari shows anonymous system information to websites, making your device look like many others. The browser also has a set of tools for blocking surveillance through social network widgets on websites and through other trackers.
Tor and other private browsers
Tor is thought to be one of the most secure browsers against tracking. It is a kind of superstructure over an entire network of so-called onion routers that mask your IP address and prevent websites from determining where they are being opened from. Every request you make passes through at least three of these routers, with the data remaining encrypted until the last one. Herein lies the main drawback of Tor — it is not possible to determine the owner of this last router, who can see all the details of your request. The onion network has other disadvantages as well — for example, it makes browsing significantly slower — so we would not recommend Tor to ordinary users.
There exist other browsers that offer varying degrees of protection against online tracking, such as Epic Privacy Browser, SRWare Iron Browser, Brave, and Dooble. Should you want to explore them, however, keep in mind that the less popular the browser is, the more likely it is to be incompatible with the websites you use a lot, and to have fewer plugins available.
Use a private search engine
Even if you use a reliable browser, search engines can still keep an eye on you. Search queries on Google, Bing, or Yahoo, will be stored in these companies’ archives. But some alternative search engines do not log your queries.
The best-known of them is DuckDuckGo, which does not save requests or device data, and does not transfer information about you to advertising networks. As well as keeping its own index, DuckDuckGo returns search results from more than a hundred systems without informing them of who searched for what.
The search engine StartPage uses Google’s results. Its developers pay the search giant in return for the latter not asking for your data. StartPage also allows anonymous opening of websites from search results.
Block Web trackers
Another way to avoid being tracked is with the help of special programs and extensions — for example, the popular ad blocker AdBlock Plus, which also prevents social networks from tracking your actions (this feature needs to be enabled in the settings). A list of trackers blocked by default can also be extended.
Firefox users can install the Facebook Container extension, which blunts Facebook’s ability to collect data about you on other sites. The social network will still be able to track your posts and likes, but it will not shadow you everywhere online. Note that the plugin exists only for Firefox.
Throw spies off your trail with a VPN
Another way to avoid intrusive tracking is to use a VPN connection. The VPN server substitutes its own IP addresses, which changes with each connection, for yours so that websites cannot track your location or link your actions to accounts (as long as you are not logged in to them).
In addition, VPNs encrypt transmitted data, preventing your ISP from monitoring your online activities (that’s right, providers are also in on the spying game).
Bear in mind, however, that a VPN will not provide total protection against information harvesting by social networks, search engines, and online trackers. So it should be used in conjunction with the tools we describe above.
Hope springs eternal
As you can see, there is reason to be optimistic. It is quite possible to hide from the all-seeing eyes of Google, Facebook, and the like, as long as you know what tools to use. If you are wondering what else you can do to protect your personal data, check out our additional privacy tips.