Take Control of your Internet Privacy

(By Julia Angwin)

In the course of writing her book, Dragnet Nation, ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin tried various strategies to protect her privacy. In this blog post, she distills the lessons from her privacy experiments into useful tips for readers.

One of the easiest and simplest things you can do to protect your privacy is to be a smarter Web browser.

This is surprisingly difficult because most popular Web browsing software is set up to allow users to be tracked by default. The reason is simple economics – you don’t pay for Web browsing software, so the companies that make it have to find other ways to make money.

The most egregious example of this conflict came in 2008 when Microsoft’s advertising executives helped quash a plan by the engineers to build better privacy protections into the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser. Microsoft has since added additional protections – but they are not turned on by default. The situation is no better at Google, whose Chrome Web browser has “buried and discouraged” the “Do Not Track” button, and is pioneering the use of new tracking technology that cannot be blocked. And it’s worth noting that the other big Web browser maker, Mozilla Corp., receives 85 percent of its revenues (PDF) from its agreement to make Google the default search engine on Firefox.

Even worse, many of the tools that Web browsers offer to protect privacy are not effective. Tracking companies have refused to honor the “Do Not Track” button. And Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode and Internet Explorer’s “InPrivate Browsing” mode won’t protect you from being tracked. Those settings simply prevent other people who use your Web browser after you to see where you’ve been online.

And so, in order to prevent the most common types of tracking, I ended up loading up my Web browser – Mozilla’s Firefox – with a bunch of extra software. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of this software can be installed in a few minutes. Here’s what I used:

  • I installed “HTTPS Everywhere,” created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.
  • I also installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.
  • And finally I set my default search engine to be DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store any of the information that is automatically transmitted by your computer — the IP address and other digital footprints — so DuckDuckGo has no way to link your search queries to you. That means DuckDuckGo won’t auto-complete your search queries based on your previous searches or based on your physical location, as Google does. So you’ll have to be a little smarter about your searches, and remember to bookmark the pages that you visit often, to save time.

After browsing with my ungainly setup for nearly a year, I found a Web browser that had all the features I wanted built in — called WhiteHat Aviator. It has built-in HTTPS Everywhere, it doesn’t retain or sell your online activity, and it uses Disconnect to block trackers from advertisers and social media companies. Its default search engine is DuckDuckGo.

It’s built by a computer security firm called WhiteHat Security, but it hasn’t been audited by any computer security experts yet, as far as I can tell. So use it at your own risk (and currently you can only use it on the Mac OSX operating system). But I’ve been using it for a few months, and after some bugginess in the beginning, I’ve started to enjoy the unusual feeling of having privacy as a default setting.

Follow @JuliaAngwin

Mirrored from ProPublica

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Related video:

Google handed maximum fine by French privacy watchdog – Business Daily (France24 reports)

3 Responses

  1. StartPage, link to startpage.com, is a great private search engine too. What it does is “remove all identifying information from your query and submit it anonymously to Google ourselves. We get the results and return them to you in total privacy.
    Your IP address is never recorded, your visit is not logged, and no tracking cookies are placed on your browser.”
    I have been using it for a few months and apart from the maps feature that I miss, it is perfectly seamless.

  2. Great post! Most people really do not have a clue how much information is being gathered about them. And now, with Google getting ready to purchase Nest , (smart thermostat company) for $3.2 billion, Google will literally be able to track you in your home. Google is all about knowing what we do when we are on the internet. Nest is all about knowing what we do when we are NOT on the internet, that is when we are at home. Now, imagine the information that Google will be able to accumulate about individuals with the marriage of these two companies. They will know when you are online, who you talk to, what you say, when you say it, when you are at home, not at home, the temp of your house, all the little things in your life that make up the individual that you are. Privacy? Forget it. When interviewing Nest’s CEO, he promised to stand by Nest’s privacy agreement, which in part states that Nest “clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services.” What the CEO would NOT promise, when pressed about sharing that data with Google, was that the privacy policy would not change. Which of course means that the privacy policy means nothing. Google’s company motto used to be “Don’t be Evil”. Many people don’t know that when Google’s CEO Eric Schimdt took over, he stated that he though that the “Don’t be evil” motto was stupid.
    Their hope, Nest’s and Google, is that we as consumers will be stupid about the implications of their merger, and let them take over our lives for the benefit of their bottom line.

    • thnx 4 the warning, Jack.
      But I think Eric Schmidt could prob’ly do a better job of running my life than I have so far.

      Have at it, Eric.

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