Now Is the Time to Secure Yourself Online
Now that Congress has voted to kill the rules that would have required home internet and mobile broadband providers (an ISP) to get consumers’ consent before selling their private information and browsing history, Americans will need every tool available to protect their privacy while using the internet. Simply activating the “private browsing” or “incognito mode” on your browser of choice, will not stop an ISP from tracking your web habits. Such modes only stop your browser from remembering what you did. Activities over the network can still be tracked. Here are a few tips and tools to help protect your private information and data from the government and corporations.
The simplest tool available is the HTTPS protocol, which some websites already implement. HTTPS authenticates a website and encrypts your activity while visiting. So while an ISP may see you visiting an HTTPS-secured website, they can’t see what you’re doing in it. You can tell if a website uses HTTPS by looking at the URL bar of your browser. The danger of HTTPS is that not every website is secured and not every secured website is completely encrypted. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provides a free browser extension called “HTTPS Everywhere” that bolsters encryption on any site that offers limited support of HTTPS.
There are also more complex tools and services available which offer more privacy, though sometimes at a cost. If you’re willing to pay, a virtual private network (VPN) can be used to encrypt your web activity. An ISP will be able to see that you’re using a VPN, but nothing else. However, a VPN is its own company and you’ll need to trust that the VPN itself is not logging your activity themselves. It’s advisable to do some research before choosing a VPN service.
If you’re tech savvy enough, and willing to possibly sacrifice your internet speeds, Tor is a generally free option that has long been used for encrypted internet activity. Tor is a distributed network created by any volunteers actively using it, where all activity is “bounced” between multiple relays before reaching its intended destination. This hides your activity by masking its true origin since any relay can be located anywhere in the world. There is a Tor browser bundle available for free that encrypts activity within that browser only. There are also a few Tor-enabled routers available for purchase, but they are early products that might need to mature.
While HTTPS, VPNs and Tor are basically the only major ways of encrypting your browsing habits, there are also smaller steps you can take to secure your internet activity, keeping you from being tracked and monitored by predatory corporations and advertisers. The EFF provides a wealth of tools and guides that can help protect you while online. It’s “Panopticlick” service can test to see if your browser has the factors necessary to be “fingerprinted” by third parties. If your browser is a little too easily tracked, you might consider installing the “Privacy Badger” add-on which actively blocks third-party tracking tools. For domain owners and website administrators, “Certbot” offers a convenient way to secure your website with HTTPS if you have not already.
Finally, the EFF offers an extensive “Surveillance Self-Defense” guide that provides tutorials and software that are useful for online security. These tutorials are also arranged into “playlists” for different groups with different security needs like LGBT youth, academics, journalists, activists and protesters. One final way to combat ISPs snooping into your private information is to fill your private information stream with noise. “TrackMeNot” is a browser extension created by a NYU researcher and professor that obfuscates your web search history with false leads and searches. While this method doesn’t “hide” your data from ISPs, it makes your data less appealing to prying eyes.
Given the current administrator, it seems unlikely that your personal online security and privacy will be less important because advertisers, corporations and ISPs need to make money off of your information. So until this administration or the FCC reinstalls the rules it just repealed, or replaces them with something better, be careful on the internet and secure yourself.