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Technology Tips: Online Privacy

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Privacy seemed to take a huge step forward with GDPR.  While you now see cookie warnings on every site you visit like some weird graffiti welcome, your privacy is still hotly contested.  

Protecting your online privacy is… remarkably difficult.  The privacy obstacle course is in three main parts: getting online; finding things; and visiting websites.  

Getting online Your internet provider has a legal duty to record your internet usage: where you go and when.  When you travel, you will likely use insecure networks.  In both cases, a virtual private network (VPN) will help to protect you and obscure your internet usage.  Since everything you do will go through your VPN provider, it is worth choosing one who does not kiss-and-tell-all.  My current top of the pops is ExpressVPN and they have excellent customer service.

Finding things Google, Yahoo and Bing are impressive advertising companies with a free search facility attached.  They are enthusiastic to track what you search for and where you go – their business depends on it.  Rather than feeding the behemoths, choose a search engine committed to forgetting your searches: duckduckgo.com and qwant.com are consummate privacy affectionados.

Visiting websites This is where things get interesting.  Heard of cookies that websites put on your computer?  While they still exist, tracking technology has moved on in a couple of respects: browser fingerprinting and unique digital tokens.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation, a group of hardy privacy advocates, created a website to test how unique their visitors were.  The result was surprising: 84% of visiting computers could be uniquely identified – without using any cookies.  This means that computers could be reliably tracked and the usual methods of erasing browsing history make no difference. How?

What happens is that their website asks your browser lots of questions.  All the questions are innocuous in themselves such as a list of the fonts installed, version of browser and operating system.  However, taken together these paint a picture that is semi-unique to your computer.  You can try it for yourself – pop over to the website below.

There are other techniques such as running invisible tests on your browser that produce further unique digital tokens.  Combining these techniques, and more, creates a powerful toolkit for recognising your computer.  How do you stay ahead in this evolving game of hide and seek?

First of all, drop Chrome.  Yup, I know that Google’s Chrome is beautiful but the damn thing is a sneak and by default tells far too much about you to Google and others for my liking.  Same goes for Microsoft’s Edge.  You have several browsers to turn to.  Brave is a new browser that protects your privacy and, if you wish, will actually pay you to view adverts.  Firefox is a long-term stalwart with new anti-fingerprinting technology.  And Tor…

Tor is a special case browser.  Carefully stripped down and secured, Tor will do its best to block efforts to compromise your privacy by using extensive encryption and bouncing your traffic through a dizzying medley of Tor servers to obscure your digital location.  However, this and other protection comes at a price: it blocks lots of software that some websites rely on and its extra protection makes it slower.  That’s fine if you live in a repressive society but may sometime feel like a tiresome price.

More info and links – all beautifully free – at www.rlcomputersolutions.co.uk/fingerprint

By Roger Lyon 

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