Here's How to Boost Your Internet Privacy

Category: Privacy

Every time you visit a website or otherwise traverse the Internet, you leave tracks. Some of that is just the way the Internet was designed, and some is a little more tricky. If you're interested in enhancing your online privacy, or hiding your online tracks with web privacy tools, read on...

Web Privacy Tools

Every time you visit a website, a log file on that server records the pages you viewed, along with the date, time, your IP address and a few other tidbits of information. That's normal, and as per the design of the Web. If it sounds scary, I encourage you to read my related article Does My Email or IP Address Expose my Physical Location? to find out why none of that information identifies you personally.

However, those aren't the only tracks you leave when you browse the world-wide web. Web browsers store your browsing history. Sites that you visit plant cookies that describe where you've been, what you've clicked, and where you go after you leave. Other people who use your computer can access much of this information easily, and so, possibly, can strangers out there on the Internet.

The good news is that Web browsers have privacy options built into them. Let’s start with Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge, since they share a common code base, and work much the same. The Incognito Mode offered by Chrome and Edge’s InPrivate Browsing allows you to open a new browser window that won't save your browsing history, cookies, or information entered in forms. When you close that window, no trace of your activity remains on your computer, with the exception of any files you downloaded or bookmarks you created during the incognito session. To go incognito, click the “three dots” icon in the top right corner. Click 'new incognito window' on Chrome, or 'new InPrivate window' on Edge.

Web Privacy Software

Chrome and Edge also give you control over what browsing data is stored, and for how long. The Clear Browsing Data option lets you delete some or all of your browsing data. With your browser open, press Ctrl-Shift-Delete, and a window will open which gives you the option to delete items (browsing and download history, cookies, stored passwords, cached files) from a specific time range. There are some browser addons that delete all traces of your web browsing history each time you close the browser. Here's a helpful article with more details on how to implement the "delete on exit" function.

If you're still using (old, insecure) Internet Explorer, click Tools > Internet Options. In the "Browsing History" section, you'll see a checkbox labeled "Delete browsing history on exit." Check this box if you want Internet Explorer to delete all traces of your web browsing history each time you close the browser. For finer control, use the Delete Button, which will let you selectively wipe your browsing history, temp files, cookies, form data and saved passwords. The Settings button next to Delete lets you control how many days of history should be stored.

In Firefox, click the “three dots” icon in the top right corner, then Options, and you'll find these options on the Privacy tab. You can set Firefox to clear your history and cached files after every session, or store such data for a limited time. You can also control and selectively delete cookies here.

If you distrustful of Google and Microsoft, you might want to try a privacy enhancing search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which promises not to share your IP address or personal information with other websites or advertisers. DuckDuckGo (DDG) queries several search engines and present the top results. They offer an optional Chrome extension which bundles the DDG search engine and tracker blocker. DDG also has a private browser for mobile devices.

See also my article Everything Google Knows About You (and How to Delete it). If you use Facebook, your online life is an open book. My article How to Control Facebook Ads (sort of) begins with the question "Is there any privacy on Facebook?" and ends with this: "Use Facebook if you like, but disabuse yourself of the notion that you have any privacy while doing so."

Do Not Track and the Downside

You may have heard about a web browser option called "Do Not Track". It's supposed keep "evil advertisers" from tracking your online activities. All major browsers have a way to enable this option, but because of the way the it was implemented, most browsers, website operators and the entire online ad industry ignored this setting. Turn it on if you like, but it won't do anything. In fact, it might do just the opposite. See RIP “Do Not Track,” the Privacy Standard Everyone Ignored for more details on that.

There is a downside to deleting your cookies, passwords and form data, or using the private browsing/no-tracking options. Websites that offer personalization or customization may not work properly, or may have missing content on the page, where third-party or personalized content would normally appear. You'll have to enter your username and password every time you visit sites that require a login.

There's also the issue of ads. The use of browser cookies allows advertisers to show ads that are relevant to you, based on the web pages you visit. Turning on some of these "privacy" options won't turn off the ads, but it will force the browser to display generic or non-targeted ads. Personally, I'd rather be "tracked" if it means that the ads I see are potentially relevant to my interests or needs.

Web Privacy Software Downloads

For even more privacy protection, check out these free programs and services you can try:

The Tor browser prevents third parties from knowing what websites you visit. When you finish browsing, cookies and your browsing history are automatically cleared. Your identity and location are obscured and your connection to the Tor network is encrypted. Even your ISP doesn’t know what you;re doing because they can’t read the data stream that passes between you and the Tor proxy server. All anyone knows is that you accessed a Tor server. Your requests for Web content go to a Tor server, which then reaches out to grab the requested content and relay it back to you over that encrypted connection. The destination site sees the Tor server’s location and ID but never yours. Theoretically, there is no way to tell what you accessed via a Tor server.

Privazer is one of the most popular computer/web "cleanup" tools. PrivaZer cleans up Internet browsing history, temp files, log files, and other traces that may contain private information, but does a "smart cleanup" of cookies and bookmarks, so you won't need to enter your saved logins, passwords and shipping address again. See my article Here's How to Sanitize Your PC With PrivaZer for my review of this software.

Do you have something to say about web privacy tools? Is there a privacy tool or service you have found useful? Post your comment or question below…

 
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This article was posted by on 24 May 2022


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Most recent comments on "Here's How to Boost Your Internet Privacy"

Posted by:

howard r
24 May 2022


A little typo. See your sentence:

If you distrustful of Google and Microsoft, you might want to try a privacy enhancing search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which promises not to share your IP address or personal information with other websites or advertisers.


Posted by:

Bill Pfeifer
24 May 2022

Have you looked into Cloudflare?
https://1.1.1.1/


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
24 May 2022

As far as privacy goes, these are my views:

If a website stores information about what I do on their site, that is their prerogative. I am on THEIR site and I'm a visitor using whatever services/features they offer.

Microsoft Edge is my primary/default web browser. I have it set to use the default privacy setting, 'Balanced (recommended)' with the 'Strict tracking prevention' feature disabled. If advertisers want to track me, there are other ways they can scrape my information from the websites I visit and there's not much I can do about it so tracking prevention/Internet privacy is a bit of a myth anyway. I have no problem with websites selling advertising space to generate revenue (they have to pay for the bandwidth they use, the storage space they consume, the people they employ, etc.) and I understand that they usually get paid only when I actually see the adds, and in many cases, only when I click an add, so I click from time to time (when I see something that interests me).

In my opinion, going to any website in my browser is about the same as going outside (leaving my home). According to the U.S. Supreme court (I live in the United States of America), when I am out in public, I have no expectation of privacy. This means that I can be video-taped, photographed, and even tracked from any public place where I can be seen, but my activities cannot be impeded in any way provided they are not illegal. Anything that can be seen from public places is subject to the same set of rules, so if you don't want to be photographed when you are outside in your back yard, put up an opaque fence, that is tall enough to block you from public view. I know that I have no expectation of privacy in public, so I conduct myself accordingly there. I conduct myself the same way on the Internet for the same reasons.

Ernie


Posted by:

MartinW
24 May 2022

I value privacy, but I'm not paranoid about it. (And I realize it's next to impossible.) That part about having to log in on almost every website I visit, though? That's what I've done for years. I'm almost never remembered, as far as I can determine. (On three or four different browsers, too, on Windows and several Linux distros.) Actually, a great many sites (15% maybe, as a wild guess) require me to jump through hoops to sign in at all. That's just been the entirely "normal" for me.


Posted by:

Dave H.
24 May 2022

I'm surprised you did not mention the Brave browser. It's default settings seems less "drastic" than Tor, and has numerous settings to adjust to your comfort level. And the "three dots" icon in the top left corner gives the option of opening a window with the Tor browser, directly.


Posted by:

mike
24 May 2022

You describe your sentence "You'll have to enter your username and password every time you visit sites that require a login" as a Downside. I don't see such a requirement as a negative, and in fact if one is using a password manager it is no problem at all.


Posted by:

Mike
24 May 2022

As far as privacy is concerned I like using the Brave browser. It blocks trackers and other internet junk I'd rather not deal with. For quick searches I use Firefox Focus. I set the search engine to Startpage.com, which is one of the best privacy oriented engines, and Focus automatically clears browsing history and cookies upon exit without having to configure anything.

A good VPN is always nice to have on hand as well. Brave is developing their own, but for now I use Windscribe. It's free, very privacy conscious and they don't keep logs. I get 50 GB of data per month, which is the most generous offer for a free VPN I've found.


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