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A Life Spent Online: Privacy Essentials and What to Look for!

I’m certainly not the messiah or anything more than an armchair privacy advocate, but to supplement my first two articles in DeGoogling my Life (here and part II is here) I figured I’d continue the theme with some suggestions.

I am the first one to put my hand up and admit that going from Google’s mail service to Microsoft’s isn’t exactly brave and courageous; they’re both big evil companies, aren’t they? It’s like politics. You sometimes must take the lesser of two evils.

Also, obligatory disclaimer: I have experience in the publishing world as the founder of book publishing company, record label and as a graphic designer. I have written dozens of privacy policies, terms and conditions, terms of service and disclaimers for web clients and for the sake of the flawed copyright system, all of which have been signed off as legally binding but I am not a privacy expert and I’m not a lawyer.

A couple of things to look out for when picking a service:

  1. Duration of service: You don’t want to discount any company for being new, but at the same time you want to know they’ll stick around and that if they close, you will know about it and have access to your data and that it will be destroyed when they liquidate. Most Terms of Service or Terms and Conditions pages will call this an End of Life, or EOL, policy.
  2. Mergers and Buyouts: Always check the policies for what would happen if the company was bought-out or merged with another entity. You want to be assured that you’re agreeing to a contract that states the business taking over will be forced to abide by the terms and policies you agreed to when signing up.
  3. Cloud content / User data: Is it okay to upload pirated content and pornography, if you’re not going to share it publicly – I’ll admit this is a weird one. I sought it not because I was going to be storing anything of the sort, but if a company has reason to terminate your service for such things, then chances are they’re using manual and/or automated systems to scan your content. Companies like Google are well-known for sifting through your uploads to find copyrighted works. Dropbox can automatically find copyrighted materials within your private account and prevent you from sharing them. Surely you don’t want companies going through any of your cloud-hosted content no matter what the method? Most of the time infringing content is to be removed after the copyright holder requests it. This does not mean that there is a mandate to search through user information to prevent it. In short: companies don’t have to oblige, but they do have to cooperate. Is going through your uploads part of that cooperation? That’s for you to consider.

My list is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve personally tested multiple privacy-orientated services and software over the past few years and so I can at least attest for them. The real issue is that unless there’s a data breach, or you do something illegal or even use a public forum to expel some sort of racist or objectionable opinions; you can’t be truly confident you are safe. I am not saying that this is why I compiled the list but the truth is I honestly don’t care if you’re trying to stay safe online to protect your information from corporations selling it or you’re a religious extremist who is convinced the world will end due to the rise of homosexuality and persons of other cultures – I still think you have the right to your opinion and privacy. For the sake of clarification, I am not endorsing cyberbullies, keyboard warriors, anarchists or anyone with intent to cause physical or emotional harm – I am merely saying that a truly free and open internet should be free from regulation and governments and corporations deciding what is right and what is wrong. I have a big issue with ‘anonymous’ services banning the likes of groups who create private chatrooms to express their bigotry, yet not have any issue with a chatroom that dishes out misinformation or pick on a group the company doesn’t see as a minority. Kinda looking at you there Reddit 😂😂

Read the terms and conditions and privacy policies of every service. I know it’s a boring list of mumbo-jumbo but a lot of the times even speedreading or scanning through the pages with page search just to see what the policies state about specific circumstances such as content they deem objectionable.

If you’re a Windows 10 user and you’re worried about any telemetry or data collection then Mirinsoft have the brilliant free portable application Debotnet which allows you to gain further control over your information. There are a few handy applications they have. CloneApps is superb for copying over your user application data to a fresh installation of Windows or another computer or just generally backing up the way you like your software. Again, all free and decent applications.

Opinions aside, here are some services, applications and add-ons I recommend you use, even if you’ve got ‘nothing to hide’:

Search Engines:

  • DuckDuckGo: Basically, a privacy-focused Google. There’s no tracking or targeted results and they aren’t an advertising company or a company that offers products they can sway you into buying. Ever searched for a product on Google or Bing and NOT been exposed to some biased results telling you about a product they have that answers your problems? Product improvement tracking does exist throughout the search engine but is anonymous and can be disabled. Furthermore, the website has a settings page that shows off some very customisable features that don’t have to be stored using personalised cookies. Advertisements can be disabled and any extensions for blocking potential tracking content can be used without prejudice.
  • Note: Startpage used to be great and highly recommended, but they’re now owned by Privacy One Group, who are a division of analytics and advertising company System1 who are well-known for not practicing the privacy principles they preach. They also purchased Waterfox which is a web browser intended to be a high-security fork of Firefox. I don’t discourage the use of the browser or search engine but take into consideration the company now behind them.

Email:

  • Mailbox.orgNot free, but still really cheap. They’re well-known and have a pretty decent reputation.
  • TutanotaFree, private, secure and easy to sign-up for. Has a great interface and mobile extensions.
  • Protonmail – Just like Tutanota, there’s a free account that is secure and offers an encrypted email account with mobile applications on top. Based in Switzerland and boasts development from MIT and CERN scientists. The interface is great but there’s a few essentials missing such as a calendar or IMAP.

 

Privacy Websites:

Browser Extensions: (Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Opera – and maybe Safari)

At the moment, I am using uBlock and DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials together without issue. You can set up each extension to function differently if you wish.

  • uBlock Originblocks ads, elements you don’t want to see and tracking servers. Uses community-built filter lists so that you can pick what you want to block. For example, if you want to block trackers but you are okay with certain websites displaying advertisements to monetise their content; you don’t have to disable the addon throughout the whole website. You can specify that you want to keep the ads but block the trackers. Their “manifesto” jab at AdBlock Plus is worth visiting. Free and open-source.
  • Disconnect – Amusingly, a privacy protection company that was built by former Google engineers. They offer commercial services such as VPNs but they have a free (or pay what you want) extension for Chrome, Firefox and Opera. The extension can be used with other blockers with little issue.
  • DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials – developed by the same folk behind the search engine. It’s a great light application. It grades websites and lists the trackers or potential concerns present. For example, it gives caskthomson.com the B+ rating and claims I have improved the site’s privacy by removing Google Analytics. It has yet to read my generic privacy policy.
  • Privacy Badger – Another automatic tracking blocker developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Facebook Containerif you’re a Facebook user and you’re using Firefox, this handy add-on by Mozilla will keep your activity separate from other websites to prevent your Facebook visits being documented and used by other sites. See Mozilla’s blog here.

If you are looking for a proper privacy-orientated browser then Brave is great. They’ve recently been listed as the most private. Strangely enough, they offer a rewards program too for anyone referring users – my referral link is here if you want to support me.

If you’re looking for a password manager, I can thoroughly recommend Bitwarden. It’s free, open-source, lightweight and works across multiple browsers and platforms. I was a devout Lastpass owner until a few months ago and the transition was simple. You can set it up to work with an Authenticator too. There are some extra features for $10USD a year which isn’t bad at all when stacked against Lastpass charging $36US a year. The premium version of Bitwarden has an authenticator which can make life a lot easier. I’ve been unable to get the Bitwarden authenticator in-browser code generator to work very well with a lot of the Microsoft applications and account services, but with Amazon it works as one would expect it to and it’s really handy.

I personally like Microsoft Authenticator, but haven’t really looked at any others hence why I don’t have a list of recommendations.

Want to go even further?

Tor (The Onion Router) and the easy-to-use Tor Browser will get you into the deep, dark, spooky web that the media bangs on about. As a tool for evading surveillance and censorship, it’s not flawless. Using a VPN and even Tails (a live Linux distro you can run from a USB drive or DVD) would be the best place to start if you’re trying to maximise as much anonymity as possible.

Photo by Scott Webb from Pexels