CEO, Sun Microsystems
No one has privacy anymore. Get over it!
Imagine telling someone a few decades back that there were dossiers on them detailing every letter they wrote, every person they called, every store they visited, every book they read, and more. What do you think would have been their reaction? Chances are the person would have been stunned and outraged at the invasion of privacy. Now imagine informing the person that this data is easily available to any person or organization with sufficient motivation and means. Even the most law-abiding citizen might have panicked at the potential for misuse of such a dossier.
In the current digital age, the above scenario is not just hypothetical fearmongering. From the moment you come online, your digital footprints are being collected, stored, processed, and analyzed. State actors like the NSA and CIA are leveraging undocumented software vulnerabilities to gain access to your private messages and documents. Advertisers are tracking every device you own, every app you install, and every website you visit. A few years back, in a case study, a Stanford researcher was able to identify the sexual orientation of a friend through carefully targeted Facebook Ads.
As we discussed in our article on Online Anonymity vs Privacy, if you are in the cross hairs of a highly committed state actor, the scary reality is that no matter how much you try, it is impossible to be anonymous. The good news we can still protect online privacy in windows.
Steps to Protect Online Privacy in Windows
Absolutely privacy is a tricky affair. Unfortunately, there isn't a master trick to guarantee your privacy. The only option is to educate yourself and cover your tracks thoroughly. This article discusses the steps that Windows users can take to protect their online privacy.
Hide Your Packets
A VPN service establishes a secure channel between your system and the VPN server and routes all internet traffic through this channel. Various VPN Protocols ensure that your true identity is not visible to the outside world. Check our in-depth VPN reviews to pick a service that works the best for you. Using a VPN alone goes a long way towards protecting online privacy in Windows. However, VPN is far from a magic bullet, and there are multiple caveats including the possibility of leaks due to software flaws and adverse impact on performance.
Trackers Be Gone
Over the past decade, advertisers have realized that the only way to counter to increasing ad-blindness of users is to show them highly targeted advertisements. These companies might not know your name, but they probably know your political views, your favorite holiday destinations, your shopping patterns and more. Marketing companies have developed increasingly sophisticated solutions to track users across different websites and devices.
The best way to remain invisible to these tracking techniques and protect online privacy in Windows is to install the following browser extensions:
- uBlock Origin
uBlock Origin blocks malicious advertisements and invisible trackers. There are many similar extensions – Disconnect, Ghostery, and Privacy Badger are possibly the best known in this category. However, uBlock Origin is the most powerful, easy to use, and effective. You can even import the Disconnect filters into uBlock Origin.
ScriptSafe comes with a huge host of features to thwart fingerprinting including blocking webRTC leaks, canvas fingerprinting, and spoofing browser user agent. However, its default settings are too aggressive and break almost all websites. You’ll have to experiment and tweak the setting based on how much convenience you are willing to trade-off for the sake of privacy.
Most modern websites are built using third-party frameworks such as Angular JS and jQuery. Since these resources are shared, instead of serving them individually, many webmasters leverage versions hosted by Google, Microsoft, and CDN providers. This allows websites to reduce their bandwidth costs but allows the third-parties to track your browsing habits. Blocking these requests entirely is not feasible either since it risks making the website unusable. This is the scenario where Decentraleyes comes in.
This extension stores several commonly used resources locally. When a website tries to access them on a supported network, Decentraleyes will block the request and then load the locally stored resource instead.
- Self-Destructing Cookies
SDC is a Firefox add-on that attempts to tackle the growing Cookie menace by instantly cleaning up tracking cookies and cleaning up other cookies once open browser tabs no longer use them.
While SDC is not available for Chrome, two extensions that come close to replicating the functionality are:
- Vanilla Cookie Manager
- Tab Cookies
Harden Your Windows Setting
Windows 10 is undoubtedly the best OS that Microsoft has ever built– it is stable and fast, and dials down most of the annoyances with Windows 8. However, the default settings are geared towards convenience, and many of the bells and whistles that you aren’t using might end up leaving you exposed. O&O Software’s ShutUp10 is a great no-nonsense utility that allows you to change all of these settings in an easy to use interface. A helpful description accompanies each setting. Hence, a one place solution protect online privacy in Windows.
Don’t Share Your Location
While your location information is vital for cab hailing or navigation apps, it’s not really necessary for most desktop apps and websites. Hence, it’s a good idea to stop sharing your location.
Disable location on Windows
Head over to Settings-->Privacy-->Location.
You’ll be shown the list of apps that have access to your location and given the option of disabling Location Services entirely or limiting access to select apps.
Disable location on Chrome
Head over to Settings-->Advanced Settings-->Content Settings.
Once again, you can either disable location setting entirely or use the ‘Manage Exceptions’ dialogue to select which websites have access to your location.
Disable location on Firefox
Type ‘about:config’ in the address bar and hit enter. Ignore the warning, if displayed, and locate the entry ‘geo.enabled’. Double-click on it to set it to ‘false'.
Don’t Spill the Beans on Social Networks
The information most of us end up casually sharing over social networks can be dangerous at the hands of any motivated and talented individual. The best way to retain your online anonymity and avoid getting doxxed is to avoid social networks like Facebook. If that seems a little too extreme to you, you should at the very least take the Facebook privacy checkup and limit the information available on your profile. Also head over to Facebook Ad Settings and set all the options to No.
Once you have set the options to No, visit Ads based on my preferences section. In this section, you can set the way Facebook uses your data for displaying ads.
Disable all the personal information fields that are used to display ads. You should take a good look at every section on this page.
Step out of the Grid
This is arguably the most difficult thing to do. Today companies like Google and Microsoft don’t just do one thing, they are practically everywhere. This has enabled them to gather massive amounts of information about netizens. We might not have a super-intelligent ‘Machine’ that monitors every citizen, but a company like Google already has an astounding amount of information about its users.
Listed below are some privacy-focused alternatives to some of the most commonly used services from the bigwigs.
searx.me – An Open Source meta-search engine that aggregates the results from other popular search engines, including Google, but doesn’t pass on your information to them.
DuckDuckGo – A powerful, feature-rich, search engine that doesn’t track it users and has been around for a decade.
|ProtonMail – A privacy-focused email service created by researchers from CERN. All email is encrypted end to end, and the data is stored in servers in Switzerland.|
Turtl – A beautiful, multi-platform, encrypted app for saving your notes.
Laverna – Laverna allows you to save notes without signing up. The data is stored in your browser and not accessible to anyone else. If you need to sync your notes across multiple devices you can encrypt and save your note in Dropbox and RemoteStorage.
Google knows who messages you, where you have been, where you want to go, which movies you like, which message boards you visit, and more.
The fact that there is nothing like complete online privacy stands true. Sadly, in this digital age, we cannot simply pull the plug on our online life because that will lead to isolation. While giant corporations like Google and Microsoft might not go rogue all of a sudden because of the constant public scrutiny, state-actors have the power to gain access to much of our personal information through legal requests in most countries around the world.
Hence, all we can do is protect our online privacy as much as we can by taking simple preventive measures and be in control of as much of our personal information as is possible.