Keep Your Data Safe – Web Edition

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Advertisers, big data collectors, political parties, and thieves all want your private information. Even if you are not entering that data into forms online, there are ways that sites like Facebook can track you across the internet. Targeted advertising seems to come out of no where, but it is coming from your browsing habits, web searches, or how long it takes you to click on something.

This article will hopefully help you at least browse the web a bit more anonymously. Most of this advice will be common knowledge to my fellow techies but for everyone else, these are simple steps to take to secure your browsing data. I hope to dive into more nuanced topics like password management and security policies later. For everyone else, here are some great first steps to start protecting yourself.

All of the programs and extensions used in this article are free.
Installing these programs and extensions will take less than five minutes.

Step 1: Switch Your Internet Browser

If you aren’t sure exactly what a browser is, it is what you open to access the open internet on either your computer or mobile device. For iPhones, iPads, and Macs, the default browser is Safari. In Android, it is Google Chrome, and for Windows machines it is Microsoft Edge (previously Internet Explorer *shiver*). In Linux, it can be any number of browsers including Chromium, Midori, or Konqueror. For each of these operating systems free, secure alternatives are available and easy to configure.

Install Mozilla Firefox

Firefox is an free and open source web browser which focuses on speed, security, and stability. It has many extensions and themes for you to customize and make it how you want! These extensions can significantly increase the security of your web browsing, but sometimes things get past the filters. Be very careful when selecting extensions to install. Otherwise, Firefox is much more secure than Google Chrome or Safari, as it does not collect data nor does it prevent ad blocking software from being used. Later, this will be very important.

Google Play StoreApple App Store

Install Brave Browser

Brave is another free and open source web browser, but it is based on the engine which runs Google Chrome, called Chromium. In modern times most web design accounts for the different browser engines, but occasionally you may have trouble using some services in one browser or another. Tracking and ads are blocked by default in Brave, and it uses this to speed up the process of loading of websites. There is one caveat: updated versions of Chromium disable ad blocking at the behest of Google, which may become an issue in the future.

Google Play Store Apple App Store

Step 2: Update Your Search Engine

Unlike Google, the search engine DuckDuckGo doesn’t track everything you search or every link you click on. It is also built in to both Brave and Firefox, and can be installed on Android and Apple products. While Google search may be more advanced, DuckDuckGo doesn’t suffer from the invasion of SEO and websites taking over keywords. It is very similar to the early days of Google, which may have its own frustrations. I still use Google for more advanced searches but attempt to keep it to a minimum.

Add DuckDuckGo to Firefox

  1. Open Settings by clicking on the File Menu in the top left corner, and then click on Options.
  2. Click on Search on the right side of the screen.
  3. Click on the Default Search Engine drop down box and select DuckDuckGo.
  4. That’s it!

Add DuckDuckGo to Brave

  1. Open Settings by clicking on the File Menu in the top left corner, and then click on Settings.
  2. Click on Search Engine on the right side of the screen.
  3. Click on the Search Engine drop down box and select DuckDuckGo.
  4. That’s it!

Step 3: Install Privacy Protection Extensions

Unfortunately, these extensions may not be available on all devices. Most notably, Brave Browser does not have extension support for mobile devices, and Firefox does not support extensions on Apple devices. For PCs and other mobile devices, these will give you an additional level of security. These are available in both Linux and Windows operating systems.

Facebook Container

Facebook Container is only available for Mozilla Firefox, but it is a must-download. Many websites (this one not included!) have Facebook “Like” and “Share” buttons in many different locations. These small scripts follow you and collect information about the websites you visit. Facebook Container is an extension which blocks these scripts from running and creating identifying information about you. Facebook already knows enough about us, we don’t need it following us everywhere!

Facebook Container’s second function is to contain Facebook to Facebook. Open Facebook’s website in the Firefox browser with this extension installed, and the tab will automatically be put in a sandbox. A sandbox prevents the tab from access any information or any object outside itself – cutting it off from all your precious private data. When you use Facebook, use Facebook Container.

Privacy Badger

Privacy Badger is a browser extension created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the freedom of speech, privacy, and transparency. Privacy Badger blocks you information from being sent or received between your browser and anyone attempting to track it. It works by analyzing the data being loaded from third party domains and determining if that same third party is appearing in multiple websites, such as a Facebook script mentioned above. Once a threshold is reached, that domain is blocked. This works differently than other anti-tracker extensions.

Privacy Badger Extension for FirefoxPrivacy Badger Extension for Brave (via the Google Chrome Web Store)

uBlock Origin

uBlock Origin is a suite of tools for not only protecting your privacy but also blocking annoying elements of websites. It blocks trackers based on lists of malicious and whitelisted domains. It allows you to block Javascript scripts with two clicks. You can learn the nitty gritty details of your browsing habits by viewing your logs (for us nerds) as well as zap annoying ads away (for everyone). It is available for many different platforms.

uBlock Origin for FirefoxuBlock Origin for Brave (via the Google Chrome Web Store)

DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials

DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Essentials does a handful of different things to protect you online. In addition to blocking trackers, it also forces your traffic to pass over more secure ports whenever possible. This is a core feature of many standalone extensions like HTTPS Everywhere. Privacy Essentials also audits a website’s privacy policy and creates a grade based on its readability and accessibility.

DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials for FirefoxDuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials for Brave (via the Google Chrome Web Store)

Step 4: Question Everything

Whenever a website suggests you download anything, always do a quick web search to see if there are any known problems with it. Sometimes known “safe” software can be hacked or go rouge. Avoiding downloading unnecessary files, especially programs and executable files, can go a long way to prevent privacy intrusions.

For example, years ago software called CCleaner was used regularly by information technology professionals to clean up orphaned Windows registry entries and otherwise spruce up a computer. Later, it was hacked. While it is nearly impossible to keep up to date on all of the security problems across the globe, taking a few moments to do a web search before downloading something can prevent some headaches.

Just search the name of the software and “safe” or “malware” or “controversy.”

If the results are anything but unanimously positive, that download is best avoided!

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