How to stay (reasonably) anonymous online

Posted by kdow on Jun 11, 2018 1:43:58 PM

Photo by Lucas Gallone on  Unsplash

Anonymity is under attack online. This is largely due to companies’ strategic monetisation options; the most convenient of which is selling some portion of the screen real estate to advertisers. And the most effective version of advertising for those companies willing to spend money on digital real estate is custom ads, which dynamically change depending on who’s viewing the page.

All sounds quite innocent. Except a lot of companies have over-stepped their mark. And, in fact, your data is the product for a lot of business these days. And that’s not right, nor is it fair. This has become front-and-centre for a lot of folks in the wake of the Ed Snowden revelations a few years ago as well as the current Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. And GDPR rules are putting user’s rights to the fore.

So, I thought it was a good opportunity to highlight some of the things I do to stay somewhat mindful of where my data goes. I’m not perfect, by any means, but this is a list of things I do/use daily to keep my privacy in check. I try to maintain an ethos of using products that have privacy baked into their design, and not baked in by means of charitable accident.

A notable exception here is just using a tools on your devices which are not web-connected or isolate data to your own “private cloud”. Apple is a great example of this. They’ve made it their business to sell the idea of digital privacy rights. And while they’re absolutely not perfect, they’re a lot better than anyone else at their scale.

  1. Pay for the things you use

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But if you want to avoid being tracked on the web, and if you really love a product, allowing the developers/business behind that product to earn their living without resorting to ads helps. A lot. If you have a todo list app, chat service, image editor or whatever that you can’t live without; shell out the cash and let the folks behind it eat their dinner. It stops them relying on ad revenue, which in turns stops advertisers doing shady things to learn more about you, track your usage stats and what-not.

2. Use Firefox

Chrome is the world’s most popular browser right now. But I’ve always felt weird about it, given how much power we’re giving Google by using it. It’s like allowing BMW to build roads. They’re going to optimise for their own products. And Google’s main product is your data.

Chrome also sends files you download, search terms, URLs visited and more to their servers. It even checks into Google’s services every 30 mins to make sure it’s up-to-date. It does this without express permission from the user.

It’s easier than ever to use Firefox thanks to the latest major release being so fast, so usable and so nice. But while Firefox is great, I still recommend installing Privacy Badger, Adblock Plus and any other privacy-tracking plugins to keep yourself clean & free.

3. Use DuckDuckGo or similar

Your data is being harvested and used against you no more than in Search. Google will harvest the data on what you’re searching for (and the context of where you are, where you work, where you last drove to, etc. etc.) to serve more tailored & specific ads to you. Moreover, this data isn’t isolated to that page.

For the last few years I’ve used DDG as my primary search engine. Sure, it’s not as personalised as Google’s search, but the trade off is worth it. They don’t sell data on, let alone collect it in the first place. The only data they do collect is search terms; but that’s not pinned to your user profile or anything.

Other privacy-enhanced or even privacy-first search engines include Bing (yes, Bing! — which provides most, if not all, of Duck Duck Go’s search results today) & Startup Page (which simply proxies Google searches).

4. Use a private email provider

One of the big services Google provides to collect data on folks, in a very creepy & personal way, is Gmail. Paying for Gmail adds a level of privacy (no ad tracking, at least) and gives the ability to have a custom domain. But if you want true privacy, you need to use a more secure service.

I’ve used Tutanota before, which was great. But their mobile offering needs work. Friends of mine Proton Mail too, but I’ve not used it myself. The trade-off here is that these are end-to-end encrypted so they don’t provide IMAP access; so your favourite email client won’t be usable with these services.

5. Choose your digital locker wisely

If you’re anything like me, you probably need to use some cloud storage service to accommodate your multi-device world. As someone who has a work Mac, personal Mac, iPad, iPhone & PC (all used daily, or near-daily), online storage is a must.

I use Dropbox for a lot of things. And their free tier actually suits me fine (I’ve been there for years so had successive upgrades thanks to referral codes and just sticking around for a long time). But paying for their other tiers is good value for money. Personally, because I’m so locked into the Apple ecosystem, I pay for the additional iCloud storage. Also, as I love taking/editing photos, I also pay for Adobe’s cloud. All of these are pretty cheap, and don’t involve handing data over to any third parties for ad targeting.

6. Get out of social media

This one is hard, as so many people rely so heavily on social media to keep up with friends & family. I’ve managed to cut down my Facebook use to once a week, and it’s astonishingly freeing. Moreover, the less I use it the more I realise that the notifications I get from it are utter garbage. Someone’s birthday is not a useful interaction.

Even I find it difficult to get out of Instagram, for example. It can be hard. But limiting yourself is an easy fix that will result in longer-term happiness & freedom online.

Tweetbot 3 for macOS

For example, Facebook’s core app isn’t on my phone or iPad. And their mobile web interface is such garbage that I don’t even bother at that point.

I think Twitter is a more trustworthy company, but I still don’t want to be tracked with my interactions. Which is why I only interact with the service via an app. In my case, I use Tweetbot. But there are many out there.

7. Get out of invasive messaging apps

The core of modern social media online is messaging apps. iMessage is encrypted and, frankly, I trust Apple since their business model is so obvious: to sell you things. Not to advertise to you. But for those using Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or similar, get out. Get out while you can. Yes, some of your mates might cling onto those services, but the more you make them move to other apps, the better your digital privacy will be.

Telegram is a great alternative, but it is currently under attack from government regulations. Even Apple has stopped it from being updated via the App Store for the past few months. Even more reason to love it, frankly. My personal favourite is Signal. An endorsement from Snowden says it all.

Textual IRC client

Another way to interact with folks is through Slack, or even IRC. My IRC client of choice is Textual.

8. Choose your online news feeds carefully

I pay for NYTimes online & The Guardian (which probably says a lot about the way I lean politically). The other big win here is using RSS to grab feeds more directly. You can use a multitude of apps to collate your RSS subscriptions, but I personally love Reeder on both iOS & macOS.

I hope this is helpful to some of you. If you want to engage in some debate around this, ping me on Twitter or send me an email.