We use the Internet all day long. We browse the web, exchange emails and use our smartphone. More and more of our devices are connected to the Internet: televisions, hi-fi and security cameras. How can we be sure that we are not vulnerable by compromising our privacy or security?
In a series of articles, I’m going to explain to you common threats and how you can protect yourself on the Internet.
This first article covers the topic of privacy while browsing the web. You’ll choose a good and secure web browser and customize it to protect yourself from trackers, shady marketing, and malware.
How do you compromise your privacy and why it matters?
Imagine going into a shop, a retail store, and the salesman waiting for you at the entrance knows instantly everything about you. He knows every single purchase you have made, which competitors’ shops you visited recently, which product you previously searched for, where you live, which car you drive and much more information which allow him to make a perfect profile of your person. This salesman also has the power to instantly rearrange the store as soon as you enter to show you all the products you desire and that you are most likely to buy.
Does it sound scary?
There are some good news and some bad news. You want to start with the bad one, right?
Most of the websites you visit collect data to build your marketing profile: which page you visit, what you search for on the website, how often you come, what you purchase, what kind of computer you have and where you live. Amazon uses this data to recommend you products. Start to buy diapers today and they will recommend you toys for a 12 months old baby in a year from now. Facebook or Google sell very targeted advertisement to companies willing to advertise on the web. Starbucks could, for example, show a specific advertisement only to persons matching these criteria: 25–30 years, single, living in Paris, with a good income, visiting their stores regularly. Targeted advertisement saves a lot of money to companies and they are willing to pay a lot for it.
The good news is that it is quite easy to block these trackers and enhance your privacy. Let’s now see how to do this.
How to protect yourself while browsing the web
Choose a good web browser
There are 4 main web browsers on the market: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari and Microsoft Edge (formerly Internet Explorer). All of them offer a good experience while browsing the web, however, I would recommend only one to protect your privacy: Mozilla Firefox.
Mozilla Firefox is an open-source software. Passionate software developers are building it to promote free and safe experience on the web. The source code is publicly available and many people contribute to the software development. This means that everyone can see how Firefox is working and can see what data is collected. Mozilla is a non-profit organization building open-source software and has no business in data collection, marketing, and advertisement. They are by far the less likely to violate your privacy.
Google and Microsoft are both private companies working in the online advertisement business. Both earn a lot of money by selling very targeted advertisement thanks to data they collect. It’s not clear how much and what data is collected by these companies while using their web browser but their interest in collecting as much data as possible is a real threat to your privacy and you should not ignore it.
Apple is not in the online advertisement business, however, the company is already known for collecting user’s searches, location, and other data from its users. Safari is also hardly customizable and you won’t find all the extensions that you need to protect you as well as with Firefox.
Blocks trackers with the right extensions
To add new features and enhance its browsing capabilities, you can add many extensions to Firefox.
uBlock Origin removes advertisements banners from web pages you browse. These banners do not only show you advertisement but also collect data about pages you visit and products you look at. Have you already had the experience of seeing an advertisement for a specific product everywhere right after searching for it on another website? This is more the result of web tracking than a coincidence.
There are many extensions doing something similar. The reason I recommend uBlock Origin is because it is an open-source software and there is no shady business model behind it. Some extensions like AdblockPlus are receiving money from big companies like Google or Amazon to keep displaying their advertisement. Your privacy is not their priority and this is a not a good sign.
Click on this link inside Firefox to install uBlock Origin.
Privacy Badger blocks other forms of web tracking like analytics solutions and social medias.
Online newspapers often add social media buttons on their pages to gain traffic and earn more money. The “Facebook Like” button lets Facebook know about any page you read when it is present. It means that Facebook keeps tracking your activity on the web outside of their platform. Without posting anything on Facebook, they collect enough to know your political opinion, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.
Privacy Badger blocks websites from leaking your private data which is also a big threat. There are other extensions addressing this problem like Ghostery and Disconnect. I recommend Privacy Badger because it is an open-source software developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization defending your rights on the Internet. Ghostery and Disconnect are developed by private companies for profit and are at the same time selling data to advertisers…
Click on this link inside Firefox to install Privacy Badger.
HTTPS is a secure protocol used to establish an encrypted connection with the website you browse. The encrypted connection prevents someone intercepting your login and passwords, email, bank details, or any other private information when you navigate on the website. It also prevents anyone knowing which web pages you are reading on this website, including your own internet provider. Many websites finally force HTTPS by default like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and now even the New York Times. However, still many websites do not force it or use it incorrectly. HTTPS Everywhere will fix both problems.
Click on this link inside Firefox to install HTTPS Everywhere.
When you go to a webpage, the website installs a small cookie in your browser which allows them to identify you each time you visit a page. Cookies are a necessary feature using to keep you logged in or save some preferences but they are sadly often misused to track your activity. They are also used by advertisers to track you among many websites you visit.
This extension automatically destroys by default every cookie created by the website as soon as you leave it. When you trust a website and want to stay logged in, you indicate it and the extension will not destroy them. It is also an open-source software.
Click on this link inside Firefox to install Self-destructive Cookies.
Random Agent Spoofer
Some researchers discovered that almost every browser can be identified uniquely. Websites have access to many pieces of information about your web browser and operating system like the list of installed plugins, installed fonts, your user agent, screen resolution, etc. Some websites use a technique called Browser Fingerprinting, which allow them to identify you uniquely because it’s really rare that 2 persons have the exact same configuration. The Electronic Frontier Foundation already published a report about it back in 2010.
It’s really hard to protect yourself from this technique. The best solution I found is the extension Random Agent Spoofer. It changes some of the data at a specified interval (I chose 5 minutes). Thanks to this, the website will most likely think that you are a different person when you come back.
Random Agent Spoofer is an open-source software.
Click on this link inside Firefox to install Random Agent Spoofer. Then change the setting Change periodically to 5 minutes.
Am I now safe when browsing the web?
We should never assume that we are 100% safe while browsing the web. There are many other existing threats and there are new ones discovered every day, but by installing Firefox and these extensions you have made an amazing step towards a more private and secure web browsing.
We’ll see in a future article how to go further and in the meantime, enjoy the Internet for all the good things it brings!
Any question? Feel free to contact me on Twitter @jameslafa.
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