Many companies and governments would like to make people think that Internet privacy is unattainable. They are hungry for all our data and so they want us to give up the fight and just let them take it. But privacy is a very important right to us all, and this is why many small groups have made it their business to create and distribute privacy tools that help us combat online spying. They work hard to keep up with the threats, and below we have a list of tools that we agree are going to come in very handy this year as we face greater cybercriminal activity, hacks, and of course, good old Internet monitoring. There is never any single solution to secure and private browsing, so Internet users need to prepare to slap on a few layers to shield their online activities.
The best search engines are those that allow users to search the entire world for information. All of these search engines are free, too, which makes them awesome. But they also track everyone that uses them, and record page visits to figure out what ads to shove in users’ faces at the next available opportunity. To do this, they analyze each user’s behavior on a page and decide whether or not the user would be interested in this or that product. The companies that make and sell these products pay very well to have their ads fed to users in this manner. And sometimes the ads are repeatedly pushed to the same user until a response is received. This is irritating, but responding just means giving them more data. And who can really be sure that all of these ads are legitimate and safe?
Let’s start with the simple solutions. A lot of privacy-conscious people have simply stopped using these scary search engines. There are better alternatives, namely DuckDuckGo and Oscobo UK search. DuckDuckGo has been around for some time now and has proven itself to be both safe and quite good. It actually feeds users with Bing and Yahoo search results combined with their own for accuracy and volume, but strips all indentifying information so that users are not abused by the companies behind the original search results or any other website that they visit from the search results. IP addresses and browser user agents are also taken off for added privacy. The newer encrypted versions of these private engines also go straight to encrypted website versions where available. In addition, DuckDuckGo has a sync feature that users can secure with passwords. Oscobo UK search has been tailored for users in the UK by default, but works almost the same as DuckDuckGo (which can be set to local if desired). These services are also free, and they also make money from paid search advertisements, but these are clearly labeled and not created from user data.
Browsers and Add-Ons
But let’s not pick on search engines. They may be the fastest way to gather tons of data because so many people use them. In reality, though, almost every free service uses data gathering as a basic part of how they do business. Even a small-time landscaper or babysitting service with a website will track everyone who browses their pages to learn how their marketing is going and what else they can do to sell more. We have free online storage service, free social media sites, free email providers – and yes, free privacy services as well – that routinely collect data to sell to advertisers. We users are the product, and as dehumanized bits of data, we no longer command respect. Even our Internet service providers themselves are collecting data, though this is mostly for the government and not for profit.
Mozilla’s Firefox browser is probably the best when it comes to respecting user privacy. All the major browsers promise private browsing, but when the companies behind them live off user data, we tend to be wary of these claims. Firefox is also a free browser, but Mozilla does not support it by tracking users. Plus, to help users stay safe when they search the Internet, Mozilla embedded DuckDuckGo into Firefox beginning in 2014. To maintain privacy on other websites that allow third-party services to monitor users, you can use Tor, or add tools to the browser such as the Disconnect suite. Disconnect provides a private browsing experience through their set of add-ons that allow users to gain control over what cookies are allowed, and also to do private searches. It is VPN-like in that it promises anonymity for users, and no logging of user data other than payment details for its Premium or Privacy Pro versions. Disconnect may yield to law enforcement, however, if presented with a warrant.
Virtual Private Networks are still at the top of our list of best privacy tools simply because they are made for the sole purpose of protecting users. Some of them are free or rely on third parties as part of the service, and so can be questionable, but there are a few that remain at the top of this list, having proven themselves over time. A VPN shields a user by redirecting all traffic through an encrypted tunnel and to a secure server so that the user’s identity cannot be established via IP address. If not even your ISP knows who you are, then no one else can find you. The only one who knows who you are is your VPN provider, so all you have to worry about is which provider you can trust.
The General Problem
Almost every free service on the Internet has someone behind it with a hidden agenda. People really don’t just give stuff away. Be it a game or an email service or a search engine or social media platforms, there is always another side to it all. Most of the time, it has to do with advertising, which is where the big bucks are. We are often told that exchanging our privacy for free services is not a big price to pay since this is what allows these providers to offer their apps and services for free. But the reality is that it is our lives – our data, our privacy – that allows these companies to exist. Some people may not care about allowing companies to follow them around on the Internet, but mostly this is because they don’t know who is really monitoring them or what they are really giving up. And in the end, they do care. When people get retargeted with ads popping up in the most inconvenient places, hardly anyone feels good about it. It’s creepy and annoying.
Profiling is even worse. When users are logged on to free services, their personal data like names, email addresses and any other information on the accounts is recorded along with all their Internet activity. Their computer IDs and their IP addresses are also noted. This is all unique user data that most of us do not realize is so very important not just to marketers but to governments and other companies like insurers and lenders. Imagine trying to get health or life insurance when your online profile shows you searching for information on a terminal illness or drug dependence. This in no way proves that you are dying or an addict, but insurers will use this to raise your premiums or outright deny a claim later on, after you have paid for your insurance and need financial assistance. You can imagine from there what kind of Internet searches will give you trouble when you are trying to get a loan or are looking for a job, for instance. Your online profile is alive forever on who knows how many servers around the world, depending on where you have gone in the virtual world.