Some techniques for protecting your privacy online

Protecting your privacy

Over the last year, more and more people have become aware of the privacy issues and the amount of tracking that

The use of tracking can help provide more targeted services and products to you, but the scale of the tracking has come as a great surprise to many people who just want to use the technology.

Savvy technology users were mostly aware of the types of tracking and other technologies and techniques that could be deployed.  For the most part this was seen as an acceptable trade-off between the freedom to use services and products provided digitally and the methods used by the  providers  of the services to generate an income to enable them to provide them.

However, after the publishing of the levels of surveillance by government agencies, a previously little-known part of the Internet’s operations has become more public, and citizens have investigated techniques to try and maintain some level of privacy.

There are levels of paranoia; from none at all and being totally at ease with the complete tracking of all your online activity to becoming a member of the “tin foil hat” brigade afraid that everyone is out to get you.

Neither extreme is particularly helpful.

Most people want a level of privacy when they are browsing so they are not being constantly bombarded with targeted advertising and providing third parties with the (sometimes intimate) details of their lives.  Duckduckgo provide a very straightforward example here showing how a personal medical query could have real impacts on your life.  This could happen even if you’re searching for research, curiosity or on behalf of someone else.

Not all tracking is bad either. The use of the huge amounts of aggregated data has provided public health services with tools that were simply not possible before. See the story Internet Search Patterns Can Predict Disease Outbreaks for an example of the positive effects.

If you are on a mobile device, then the use of tracking can be beneficial in providing links to places where you are. When I use any mobile phone, the telecoms company knows my location (because I connect to their base stations), and this information is also collected by governmental agencies. This information can also be requested by law enforcement bodies.

It also means that when I try to find my way around a new area, of are trying to find a coffee shop I am given information that is useful to me.  As a regular citizen, the convenience of the service is useful. The ability of the law-enforcement bodies to request this information via a publicly-accountable legal process is also a valid and fairly non-controversial use of this information. The real-time tracking and retention of this data by other government security agencies is more problematical and the discussions and controversies thrown up around the gathering, use and retention of this information by bodies such as  NSA and GCHQ are important discussions for mature western democracies to have  (and beyond the scope of this article).

However, most tracking is less publicly spirited and is used by a myriad of commercial and governmental organisations and is carried out without your knowledge, and therefore without your consent.

The techniques I describe here are not designed to make you disappear from the net, but they go some way to keeping what you browse private.

A useful analogy might be your local public library or bookshop. When you walk into a library you may go into browse, you may have a clear idea of what you want, and of course you are free to browse a book impulsively based on the cover, a display, even because the title looked interesting as it sat next to the book you were going to get.

You wouldn’t expect the librarian (or shop assistant) to walk behind you recording every book you looked at and making a copy of every page of every book you read. Unfortunately the power of the technology which enables us to have the world at our fingertips also enables it to  act as a recording angel for each and every user of the internet.

The techniques here are designed to give a level of privacy when browsing the web.  By using these, you gain some more control over your personal information and thoughts and allows you to choose what you want to release.

The areas I am going to look at are:

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