Cofounder of HQ Network and HQ Services, providing easy-to-use cybersecurity tools and consulting.
A couple of years ago, my cofounder set up a Pi-hole at the office, and I found it to be a magical device. With it running on our network, I immediately stopped seeing most of the intrusive ads that were plaguing the internet. Web pages started loading super fast. When I flipped open developer mode in my browser, I saw that it was blocking even more things than I realized – lots and lots of trackers.
It turns out that most modern websites are filled with 3rd party scripts that provide analytics and ads, which are not inherently problematic, except most of those 3rd parties have no respect for user privacy. Services like Google Analytics (which is included on 89% of the top 10k websites) track every page you visit and follow your movement across the web.
Just a snippet of 3rd party sites being blocked by HQ VPN on one news site
By adding Google Analytics to their site, the website owner learns about their audience’s behavior, but Google is the big winner. They are able to aggregate usage patterns and individual browsing habits for billions of people across millions of sites. I’ve met plenty of business owners who are so overwhelmed by the data in their Google Analytics dashboard that they never open it. They just add the trackers to their site, and the only one getting any value is Google.
And it’s not just Google—there are 1000s of services that keep tabs on you as you travel throughout the internet. Nothing to hide, you say? Tracking opens you up to targeted phishing and is a common attack vector for malware.
The average site contains twenty-five 3rd party scripts, news sites have closer to 50 – Source: Princeton
That’s why my Pi-hole experience was so magical. Without me doing anything, it just stopped these 3rd party scripts. When a website started to reach out to Google or another tracker, the request was intercepted and told my browser, sorry, this service doesn’t exist. The website still loads. You get what you need. And dozens and dozens of unnecessary, intrusive, and wasteful requests just fall on the floor. Wonderful.
After a week of this setup, we realized we wanted this everywhere, not just at the office. I regularly work outside of the office, often in places with very low-bandwidth, like in the mountains, where reducing unnecessary data load is really helpful. So we created a solution that lives in the cloud – our spam-blocker for the internet. We also confirmed our suspicion that blocking all those extra trackers would significantly reduce our data usage on LTE.
Because the solution is built on top of a VPN, all of my traffic is encrypted, making it safe to use my bank app from sketchy airport WiFi or the coffee shop. As before, I didn’t have to do anything once it was installed. All those 3rd party ads, trackers, and malware were just blocked. We eventually expanded access out to friends and family, and recently opened it up to the public through our early access program.
A friend of mine summed it up pretty well: “I love the VPN. It’s like a sweater of safety wrapped around my internet connection. Cashmere, or perhaps fine merino.”
The internet has always had scams, but they are getting worse. Luckily, protecting myself from lots of the crap out there is as easy as blocking the parts of the internet we already know are rotten. So go on, see what the internet feels like wrapped in fine wool.
For site owners who still need analytics but care about privacy, there are new options like Simple Analytics and Matomo that can track aggregate data – what your most visited pages are, what devices are popular – without logging who specifically saw what and certainly without aggregating movement across other sites. For faster loading, privacy, and simplicity reasons, we don't use third parties on our site for analytics, we just keep track of basic aggregate stats from the server.
Use ads to monetize your sites? There are a few upstarts creating new solutions in the space. Advertisers expect guarantees on impressions and clicks, so there is a balance to be struck. Connecting with relevant-to-your-users companies for sponsorship provides a great balance for both advertisers and users. See Daring Fireball for an example. Another good example is what Read the Docs is doing on their platform.
We are working on compiling a larger resource of ad networks, analytics, and other 3rd party tools that protect user privacy, so if you have an example or product you love, get in touch.
by: Amanda McGlothlin, cofounder, hq.network. Get early access to HQ VPN and try for free.
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