If you’re online, living your life without having dozens of machines watching your every move is not the default.
Every search you make, every website you visit, and every email you send is logged, tracked, scanned and stored on multiple computers. The reasons for this vary from simple maintenance, to building a profile of you for advertisers.
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” – Eric Schmidt
Mr. Schmidt’s simplistic take on privacy ignores the fact there are many things we do each day that we’d prefer not to be watched doing. Searching for a gift for your spouse, hunting for a new job, or protesting an oppressive government are just a few examples.
“Allow me to place this camera in your bathroom, Mr. Schmidt.” – Me
Today, your privacy is no longer something you just have online, but something you have to actively work for.
Luckily there are several terrific options to help reduce the amount of tracking that happens when you surf the net.
I’ve been using AdBlock Plus for several years and it’s always the first add-on I install in any browser I use. Adblock Plus strips out the vast majority of ads you see when visiting sites. Along the way it helps pages load faster as it prevents the ad from actually downloading to your computer, and on YouTube say goodbye to the ads at the beginning of that super cute cat video.
Adblock does reduce the amount of ad money a site receives, as you’re no longer counted as an impression for that ad. My general rule here is that if I’m asked politely by a site to turn ads back on, then I do so. I’ve found that sites that ask nicely tend to have relatively unobtrusive advertising on their site.
While Adblock Plus takes care of advertisements, Ghostery removes all the tracking scripts, cookies, widgets, like, and tweet buttons on sites that can be used to build up a profile of who you are. As an example, when you’re logged into Facebook, every like button you see lets Facebook know you’ve visited that site. Over time that’s quite a bit of a personal surfing profile that can be directly linked to you. Ghostery removes all of it, preventing sites from knowing which pages you’ve been to.
Adblock and Ghostery Caveats
With AdBlock and Ghostery, you’ll occasionally a page isn’t loading properly. Typically videos or images aren’t displaying properly. In those cases, you can simply deactivate Adblock or Ghostery on that specific page or website and see if that fixes the problem.
This is a fairly new entry in my collection of always installed plugins. HTTPS Everywhere helps to keep your data safe and private on hundreds of sites by ensuring that you always connect to the secure (https) version of a site. This is great for use on public wifi networks in cafe’s and restaurants. With a secure connection, all a hacker (or the owner of the network) can see is that you’ve connected to the domain (google.com) but won’t be able to capture your login details or the pages that you’ve visited.
Lightbeam is a fairly new plug-in for Firefox. It doesn’t offer any protection like Adblock or Ghostery, but it shows you exactly who is tracking you and how that data can be used across sites to build a profile of your browsing. Each site you visit is displayed as a circle, with all the trackers appearing as triangles. As you travel the web you’ll begin to see the network of trackers grow, as well as get a better idea of how they’re able to learn who you are through your browsing habits.
TOR (The Onion Router)
Now we’re getting serious. TOR combined with a specially modified Firefox takes all your web browsing and bounces it around dozens of computers all over the world before reaching the site you requested. The requests you make are encrypted as they travel across the TOR network, and each computer in the chain only knows the requests from the computer prior and the next one. Once your request reaches an exit node, that computer actually makes the request to the website you wanted to visit. Then the response gets passed back along the network until it reaches your computer.
TOR offers the best anonymity of any solution on the internet. It’s used by dissidents and journalists worldwide to keep their communications hidden from prying eyes.
These plugins help to put a greater amount of control back in your hands when it comes to your online privacy, and make the web a more pleasant experience overall.