Some of the following advice may sound technical but there is always a trade-off between privacy and convenience. The more convenient something is the less private and secure it is. Achieving privacy is something that requires your investment in time and effort.
1) Limit the amount of personal info you put out there
This is absolutely the most important thing you can do to increase your privacy. You can employ all sorts of fancy anti-tracking software and device, Tor browsers, and virtual machines but they won’t do you much good if you are posting photos of yourself online (with your real name) and announcing where you live. The more information you put out the easier it is for potential adversaries to track and identify you. You have to keep in mind that whatever you post out there is public information. And whatever you put out there likely stays there permanently. Even if you delete the information chances are that the data remains somewhere on some computer or server. If you have regrets about what you posted chances are you can’t take it back and it’s there for good.
You need to especially be cautious of using social media. This includes Facebook, MySpace, Instagram, and Twitter. In today’s day and age we are encouraged to share everything about ourselves and our interest. However by doing this you are announcing to the world who you are. Always keep in mind who may be able to access your profile – your boss, your family, law enforcement, the government, the corporations, your enemies, etc. In fact there is a special term used for those who act on publicly available online resources to perform investigations on you. It is called OSINT, which stands for open-source intelligence.
2) Try to avoid Google, Yahoo, and Facebook products
There is very little disclosure on what those big players do with your data. When they keep mum about that, that is a signal for trouble. Instead of trusting those big establishment players with your data, switch to platforms that care about your privacy. Use Protonmail or Posteo instead of Gmail or Yahoo mail. Instead of using Google Maps use Open-Street Maps or maps.me. Instead of doing searches through Google, use Startpage or DuckDuckGo.
3) Don’t use Windows 10
Windows 10 is one big spy machine. It collects all sort of information about you and your machine including your identity, passwords, WiFi hotspot names and passwords, your keystrokes, searches and mic input, calendar data, credit card information, interests and habits, location data, etc.
For a much more private OS use Linux. Popular distributions are Debian, Fedora, Mint, Manjaro, and Ubuntu. Mint and Ubuntu are fairly user friendly. MacOS is an improvement over Windows 10 but nowhere near as private as Linux.
4) Use Firefox instead of Chrome or Safari
The Firefox browser respects your privacy and is open source. There are many good plugins that you can apply to Firefox to further improve the security such as No-script, Firefox Containers, Canvas Blocker, HTTPS Everywhere, etc.
5) Keep your system updated
This is particularly true if you are using Windows as more viruses and Malware target Windows than any other operating system. All operating system either run the updates automatically or prompt you to give it permission to update your system. There are tens of thousands of new malware coming out everyday and you need to make sure that your system is kept current of the latest threats. Browsers, apps, and software all issue updates from time to time as well. Do not turn these updates off!
6) Be wary of your smartphone
Most people are not aware that the smartphone is the biggest tracking device you can possess. The modern phone is equipped with a cellular antenna, WiFi antenna, Bluetooth antenna, NFC (near field communication) antenna, GPS, gyroscope, camera, and microphone. Smartphones are incredibly convenient to have but can be a privacy nightmare. Your phone (and apps) is constantly sending data to it’s servers about you and your usage even when not being used. Android (a Google product) is especially bad when it comes to privacy. You should limit the apps on your phone to only ones that are absolutely necessary.
One point you need to keep in mind is this: the less control you have over your device the less you can control it’s privacy. The more user-friendly your device is, the more difficult it is to control privacy. If possible conduct your activities on an actual computer such as a laptop or desktop. Web browsing should ideally be done only on a “hardened” Firefox browser on a “real” computer.
7) Use a good VPN
An IP address is a unique 32-bit sequence of numbers that is assigned by your internet service provider and is tied to your geographical location. An IP address is necessary to communicate over the internet from one computer to another. A VPN (virtual private network) spoofs your IP address to make it look like your internet traffic is coming from a different location then where you live. This way the computer you are communicating with cannot determine your actual location. VPNs are all about trust. While your ISP will not know about your online activities while using a VPN (a VPN encrypts all your data from your computer to the VPN server), your VPN provider does know about your usage. Because the VPN provider knows your browsing activities, you have to choose wisely. The VPN provider should not be logging your usage.
Don’t fall in the trap of getting lazy and assuming that once you have a VPN you have nothing more to worry about. I know many who have adopted that attitude. Hiding your IP address is just one privacy aspect. This brings us to . . .
8) Use TOR
A VPN is privacy by policy. TOR is privacy by design. – backlight447
For better anonymity, I recommend using the TOR browser over using a standalone VPN. Unlike a VPN, TOR goes much further than just hiding your IP address. It spoofs the type of system you are using. If used properly, adversaries cannot use this information to perform a correlation of all the sites you visited. Further no logs are kept of your browsing activities when you use TOR.
Like Firefox, Google Chrome, and Internet Explorer, TOR can be downloaded and executed directly on the host operating system. Ideally though, for maximum security, TOR should be used within an isolated environment to “sandbox” the user’s browsing activity and possible data leakage to the host operating system.
Tails, Whonix, and Qubes are TOR sandboxed operating systems that are worth checking out. Tails is a “non-persistent” OS that does not save any of the user’s activities when the system is turned off. Whonix is a persistent OS that does save the user’s data – similar to that of a traditional OS such as MacOS and Windows. Whonix forces all internet traffic through TOR by having a separate gateway. Qubes is also a persistent OS. What makes Qubes unique is their use of “disposable” virtual machines (more on this later) that isolates user activities from each other.
Keep in mind that many sites will not work in TOR. If you live in the US, TOR spoofs your location to a European location. The sites you are visiting may flag you as being suspicious. Do not attempt to log into your bank account while using TOR or your bank will likely block you and force you to reset your password. WordPress and Bitchute do work fine in TOR however.
9) Browser Fingerprinting
Keep in mind that anytime your device is connected to the internet, information about your system and your connection is available at the recipient end. This is the inherent nature of the internet. Nothing is private. The website deviceinfo.me shows an example of what type of information can be collected on the recipient side:
Your IP address, browser type, browser plugins, operating system, geolocation, CPU type, and screen resolution can all be seen on the other end. Pretty scary huh? Additionally a unique profile can be determined by putting all these variables together to potentially single you out.
Going back to TOR. TOR attempts to blend you in with the millions of other TOR users so you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. For example you can’t manually set the screen size to some strange resolution such as 1022 x 757. Doing so would defeat anonymity because you are one of the few people with that screen resolution. TOR uses a technique called “letterboxing” that automatically adjusts the resolution to the nearest hundred so you would have a resolution of 1000 x 800 instead.
10) Use Virtual Machines
Virtual Machines allow you to run a separate operating system on top of your regular operating system. For example if are running Windows 10, you can run Ubuntu Linux or Windows 7 as separate OS on that same machine.
Virtual machines provide a number of benefits. They isolate your activities from the host operating system therefore making it difficult to transfer malware and other vulnerabilities to the main operating system. If the virtual machine does get an infection, it can be “rolled back” to an earlier state.
Virtual machines do not relay any information about the specs of the host system. In other words the CPU type, host OS type, and font used on the host OS cannot be seen by the recipient computer when browsing the web in a virtual machine. Lastly virtual machines saves you from having multiple computers with different operating systems installed. Virtual Box and VM Ware are two of the most popular virtual machine software.
11) Use good passwords
You need to use a good and unique password to protect your accounts. Because of the difficulties of memorizing different passwords for so many different accounts, most people use just one or two passwords for all of their accounts. This is bad practice. If one password gets compromised, many of your other ones can get compromised as well. A good password manager is essential. You may want to check out Keypass, Lastpass, and 1Password. A good password manager has high levels of security and encryption. The one that comes with your browser is not very secure. Also if an account offers 2FA (two-factor authentication), use it. This provides an extra layer of security.
12) Be very wary of freebees
Let’s face it, everyone wants a bargain. Most of us would prefer something free instead of having to pay for it. However as mentioned and bears repeating again, there is a trade-off between convenience and privacy. Generally the more convenient something is the more privacy you will give up. There is no such thing as a free lunch. How do companies like Facebook, Yahoo, and Google make money if they don’t charge for their services? After all those companies are multi-billion dollar entities. The way they make money is by selling your data. You are the product. The data being sold is packaged to advertisers and corporations. Some of what these devious entities do is buried somewhere in the fine print of the Terms of Service that nobody ever reads. There is no such thing as a free lunch.