For a number of reasons, many people are increasingly concerned with their privacy and security on the Internet. Since the primary reason most people use the Internet is for browsing, this would be a opportunistic use model to look for improvement. Of course the tradeoff is that as we make browsing more secure, we also may make the browsing experience more difficult. So in the list below, it progresses from low return / low impact to high impact / high return, and you can pick you pain threshold.
Note that in the context of a browser (and browsing), I define security as the ability to browse without being infected or compromised by malware. I define privacy as the ability to browse without sites (or other parties) tracking, harvesting information from my browser. Anonymity is when there is a sufficiently high degree of privacy that the browsing activity is anonymous – and true anonymity is not easy to achieve.
Off the Shelf / Good Browser Hygiene
Browser: There are lots of browser options and I cannot offer an opinion on most of them. On a regular basis browsers are reviewed for security – and Chrome, and Firefox are usually in the top three. Privacy is distinct from security, and generally Firefox rates higher than Chrome in that respect. However everything is a tradeoff, and I personally think that Chrome has better performance (which I may be imagining), and my Android devices and Chromebook are Chrome by design – so that is my browser choice by default. Secondary to that, I appreciate the rolling updates and aggressive stance Google takes on security, and I think that outweighs the weaker stance they take on privacy – since I believe I can manage my privacy / personal data easier than I manage security threats. Consider browser selection as the first thing to do in cleaning up your browser security / privacy concerns.
Browser Settings: The obvious things to check in your browser include:
- Turn on “Do Not Track” / Open settings and search for this flag – if it is not set, set it. This provides some minimal and non necessarily mandatory level of tracking reduction.
- Content Setttings (Cookies): I up the default level to “Keep local data only until I quit my browser” and “Block third-party cookies and site data”.
- [Chrome Specific]Under Signin and Sync Settings, I encrypt my sync data with a passphrase. This is all about key management and reducing personal data on Google Servers.
Browser Plugins: The following list includes a few plugins that provide improved privacy.
- HTTPS Everywhere: This is a plugin that will force a HTTPS connection as the default, with HTTP (non-secure) as the fallback.
- DuckDuckGo Search: Duck Duck Go is a search service that provides much stronger statements about not tracking your browsing / searching activity (as compared with Google). They feel fairly strongly that this is a big deal. Take a look at their positions on results bubbling
- DoNotTrackMe: A plugin that gives you explicit tracking information as you browse. This actually provides some visibility into what sites are tracking you in realtime.
Sites: What to do to reduce your browsing footprint.
- Google Search History: By default Google saves your search history and used it to target ads and search results. My recommendation – turn it off.
- Google Dashboard: A nice portal that provides a one view view into your data footprint on Google Servers. Review and clean it up. While you are there, setup an Alert on your name. It will give you any visibility into possible misuse of your name.
- Twitter Privacy: Twitter by definition is fairly public so there is not much to tweak. However it makes sense to verify that “Do Not Track” is enabled and consider turning off / deleting location data.
- Facebook: Expect this to change over time. Privacy settings seem to be a fast moving target at Facebook. So much of the business value proposition of Facebook is about eliminating privacy, so this will always be about providing some minimal level of privacy control that that is just enough to keep most users from leaving.
Overall these tweaks to your browsing experience will provide some improved level of security and privacy, but fundamentally much of the browsing process from your client system will still be relatively visible – the contents may protected with SSL/TLS, but where you are going, what you are downloading and how long you are there is not. Specifically, where you are going (page by page by page), how long you are there and how my kilobytes you have downloaded is all visible. If your ISP / employer / campus / hotel / building has a proxy server between you and the Internet, they have access to this level of information.
Overall I consider these steps to just be good browser hygiene.
If this level of exposure bothers you (it may), and you feel a need to mitigate this issue, read on – a VPN / proxy service may be the solution you are craving.
Technically a VPN and a proxy server are two very distinct functions. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a secure (i.e encrypted channel) and authenticated (i.e. username/password and server certificate) channel from your client system to some server on the Internet. In the enterprise / business world, VPNs are used to enable authorized users on the Internet access to corporate servers on the private networks. In the world of proxy servers, VPNs are used to provide a secure channel to some proxy server on the Internet.
A Proxy server is simply a relay for your Internet / Browsing traffic. You send some Internet request to the proxy server, and it redirects it to the Internet, with the source mapped back to the proxy server. When the response is received by the proxy server, it is then relayed back to your client system. Proxy servers are not explicitly secure, so they are generally coupled with some form of VPN to provide a secure channel.
There are large number of VPN/Proxy service providers around the world. For the most part, the free ones (reportedly) have a fairly high rate of malware infection and the for pay ones are from $40 to $100 a year. This is not an endorsement – but PureVPN and HideMyAss are both typical for-pay VPN/Proxy Services, with very typical pricing and functionality providing a wide range of target servers around the world.
When using a VPN/Proxy service, the net effect is that any geolocation will place you at (or near) the location of the proxy server. This means that if you are accessing some Internet service with geolocation service qualifiers (e.g. bbc.com, nfl.com) , you can appear to be somewhere that you are not. It also means that if your employer, hotel, campus, school has blocked sites/services, you can circumvent these restrictions with a VPN/proxy. In both of these cases you are not likely violating any laws, but you are likely violating some Terms of Service – implied or otherwise.
More legitimately, if you often use public or untrusted WiFi networks, a VPN / Proxy ensures that your traffic will not be sniffed on the local network. If you use WiFi in a high density environment, and are concerned about your network being compromised, or you don’t trust the other users on a shared network – a VPN/Proxy can ensure your traffic is secure / private even if your network may not be.
Ultimately, a VPN / Proxy service can provide a step up in privacy / security for a specific set of threats. However, by using a VPN / Proxy service you are literally handing this same information over the VPN/Proxy service provider – so if your concern is browsing/security in general, you have just shifted the risk.
From this point, there is one very obvious and better way to achieve better security/privacy – the TOR Browser. The TOR (The Onion Router) Browser is a custom version of Firefox packaged/integrated with a few tools related to The Onion Router, including an Onion Router proxy for your client system. The download package installs easily, and the TOR proxy starts automatically just be launching the TOR browser. If you are serious about using it for the privacy it can provide, read the Warnings FAQ.
The general principle behind TOR is that an outgoing datapacket is encrypted with some relay address on the TOR network, with multiple successive similar layers applied, and ultimately the packet is sent out to the network in which each one of the relays peels off the successive layers – and it is finally sent to the Internet destination. The goal / purpose of this effort is that through this obfuscated path, the user is much more anonymous and their privacy is protected.
In an ideal world, where TOR relays were spread around the world from different organizations it is possible to achieve some level of anonymity. In the real world, some of these relays are operated by agencies with the intent to compromise the TOR network, reducing the effectiveness. In addition some academic research has shown a few other weaknesses related to coordination between TOR relays. The net result is that the TOR network and the TOR browser provide a much high degree of anonymity than any other readily available solution – but it can be broken. For a recent example, refer to the story behind Silk Road shutdown. Details are lacking, but this does show it is susceptible if the incentive is high enough.
There are a wide range of things you (as a user) can do to reduce your browsing footprint, reduce your ability to be tracked, increase your security and privacy (and anonymity). However, the first step to any of this is to assess what your threats are, and take reasonable steps to mitigate those threats. If you threats are non-specific and general, than it is likely that the non-specific and general browser hygiene solutions are sufficient. If you have specific threats that fit the more elaborate solutions, use appropriately.