Take Control of Your Online Privacy (1.1) (2014)
Browse the Web Privately
In the previous chapter, I told you how to keep your connection to the Internet private. That can close quite a few holes that might put your privacy at risk—but even if you do all that, as soon as you open a Web browser, new risks emerge.
Simply browsing the Web reveals a great deal about you personally, your computer, your location, and your habits. There are many steps that you can take to reveal less about yourself, although some entail some loss of convenience. Never is this more the case than when shopping on the Web. This chapter explores the risks, the measures you can take to avoid them, and certain negative consequences of those measures.
Understand the Privacy Risks of Web Browsing
Assuming you’ve taken all the steps in Keep Your Internet Connection Private, browsing the Web privately comes down to two main things:
· Preventing information about your browsing activities from being stored on your own device (see On Your Device)
· Preventing the sites you visit (including search engines) from collecting information that can identify you personally (see On a Web Server)
(If you have not taken all the necessary steps to secure your Internet connection, there’s a third factor to worry about—having information intercepted in transit on its way to or from a Web site you visit. We’ll come back to that momentarily, in In Transit.)
Both of these categories are often misunderstood, and your actual risk may be greater or less than you imagine.
If information is stored on your computer, it’s available to anyone who has physical or network access to your computer (assuming it’s not protected in some other way, such as by using full-disk encryption or keeping it in a locked cabinet). To use the obvious example, your spouse or roommate might sneak a peak at the list of Web sites you’ve visited when you’re not looking. But some of this stored information, including cookies, is also available to advertisers and other online entities as you browse the Web. One person may not care whether someone in his home or office sees what’s on his computer, but may have a principled objection to advertisers knowing about his browsing habits. For another person, the opposite may be the case—advertisers might be irrelevant, but it would be problematic if a family member, coworker, or (let’s just say) the FBI found out what sites she’s visited.
Even if your computer is squeaky clean, every site you visit may record what pages you’ve read, what search terms you’ve entered, and much more (see On a Web Server, ahead). Unless you’ve logged in to a site with a username and password, it probably won’t know who you are by name, but the other information the site logs could very well be enough to identify you uniquely, given sufficient effort and ingenuity.
Finally, information you send to, or receive from, a Web site could be intercepted in transit. If you use an encrypted Wi-Fi connection, you eliminate one avenue that could be used to eavesdrop on your Web surfing. If you activate a VPN, you eliminate another. And if you connect to a site that uses HTTPS (which I talk about ahead, in Browse Securely), you reduce the likelihood of in-transit eavesdropping to the point that most of us need not worry about it at all. In the absence of any of these protections, I’d be extremely hesitant to enter or view any sensitive personal information on the Web.
That’s a long list of risks. But before freaking out about all the potential privacy risks of Web browsing, remember to ask yourself what data you’re trying to keep private, and from whom. Do you care what someone could find physically on your computer? Do you care what advertisers know about you? Both? Neither?
If you’re downloading stuff or doing things online that could lead to jail time, a lawsuit, a divorce, losing your job, or a combination thereof, you could always, you know, not do that. Regardless of what you do to protect your privacy, someone will probably find out and it will end badly for you. So seriously, stop it.
For what I’ll call “lesser offenses,” you’ll want to be aware of, and take steps to avoid, certain types of data collection.
On Your Device
On your computer or mobile device, you should be aware that browsing the Web typically results in at least the following information being stored, for each browser you use:
· Browsing history: A list of every Web page you’ve visited, in each browser.
· Download history: A list of every file you’ve downloaded—again, in each browser.
· Cookies: Textual information stored on your device by the sites you visit, or by the companies who place ads or other code on those sites. Cookies (see Live Data, ahead) are most often simple settings or random-looking strings of characters that identify your browser uniquely, but they can also include your username, password, location, or any number of other details. Cookies can then be read when you revisit the same site—or other sites using the same ad network, analytics service, or social networking software.
· Flash cookies: Records similar to cookies that are stored outside your browser when you visit sites with Flash content, including movies. The same thing goes for sites using Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin.
· Web caches: The contents of pages you’ve visited recently, especially images (so the page can load more quickly if you return to it) and favicons (the little icons that appear in your browser’s address bar next to the URL). Some browsers also store thumbnail images of the pages you’ve visited.
The above is only a partial list. Some sites use even sneakier techniques to squirrel away various information about you in a variety of places (see Live Data, ahead, for further detail). In addition to all these things, your device may store a global cache of recent DNS lookups—that is, somewhere outside your browser there may be a list of the domain names you (or your apps) most recently visited along with their IP addresses. If you’re sufficiently curious or motivated to want to remove this cache, you can search the Web for “delete DNS cache” to find the procedure for your operating system.
The worry about Web transactions being observed in transit is that data such as passwords, credit card numbers, and other personally identifiable information could fall into the wrong hands. In fact, the sky’s the limit—literally anything you type on a Web page or any content displayed on a Web page you view—could get out. Fortunately, this is the least likely privacy threat when it comes to browsing the Web and the easiest one to guard against (see Browse Securely, ahead, and also refer back to Keep Your Internet Connection Private).
On a Web Server
Modern Web servers can store an astonishing number of facts about every single page request, including (but not limited to) the following:
· Time stamp: The date and time of the request.
· Time zone: The reported time zone of the device making the request.
· IP address: The numeric address of the device you’re using, which may or may not uniquely point to you, but which normally does reveal your approximate geographical location.
· Item requested: The URL and size of the page or other resource you loaded. If you visit a page that contains 20 graphics, they’ll register as 20 separate requests.
· Referrer: The URL of the page on which you clicked a link to get to this page (if applicable).
· Search terms: If you reached this page from a search engine, the terms you searched for may be logged.
· User agent: The name and version of your browser. (Many browsers let you change this at will, so what the site records may only be what you tell it your browser is.)
· Browser plugins: The names and versions of all your browser plugins or extensions.
· Operating system: Your operating system’s name and version.
· System fonts: All the fonts installed on your device.
· Screen characteristics: The dimensions (in pixels) of your screen, along with color depth.
Furthermore, the server may be able to tell how far down a page you scrolled, how long you spent looking at a page, which links to external sites you clicked on, and a good deal more.
Although none of these items has your name on it as such (again, assuming you haven’t logged in with unique credentials), you can probably see how a combination of them might point to you uniquely. And if that isn’t already obvious, I invite you to visit a site run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called Panopticlick. It examines much of the above data to create a “fingerprint” of the device you’re using, and it tells you how unique that fingerprint is. I tested one of my Macs and found that only one in more than three million browsers has the same fingerprint as mine. That means an advertiser (or anyone else monitoring my Web activities) could be reasonably certain that I was the person who requested any given Web page.
Go to the Right Site
One of the most surprising privacy threats on the Web is impostor sites that look almost exactly like the real thing, but are merely clever copies designed to trick you into supplying your password, credit card number, or other private data. Sometimes these sites appear if you make a slight typing error when entering a URL or if your DNS settings have been compromised, but they’re most commonly reached by clicking a link in a phishing email message. (These messages often warn you that you must “update” or “confirm” your account settings or suffer dire consequences.)
Here are some tips to avoid bogus sites:
· If you haven’t already done so, follow the advice in Avoid DNS Mischief in last chapter to avoid most DNS exploits.
· Don’t click links in email messages. If you get a message that appears to be from your bank, PayPal, Amazon.com, Apple, or whoever insisting that you log in to correct some problem and you’re worried that it might be a legitimate message, open your Web browser and manually type the site’s address. Then log in and see if there are any messages waiting for you. If not, the message is almost certainly fake.
· Check the site’s certificate. Real banking, commerce, and similar sites nearly always use HTTPS (see Browse Securely, next), and you can usually click a lock icon in your browser’s address bar to verify the site’s SSL certificate. If there’s no certificate, if you see a certificate warning, or if the site doesn’t even use HTTPS, you may be dealing with an impostor.
· Let technology help. Most browsers have built-in checks to warn you of sites that might be bogus (see Browser Privacy Settings), as do some third-party plugins (see Web Privacy Software). Be sure to enable these features. In addition, most password managers (see Protect Passwords and Credit Card Info) confirm each site’s identity before entering your credentials.
Security and privacy are two different things (see the sidebar Privacy vs. Security vs. Anonymity), but sometimes security provides privacy as a side-effect. That’s certainly the case with Web browsing: if you can ensure that the connection between your browser and the server is securely encrypted, you can also be confident that no one in between can violate your privacy by reading what you send or receive.
The standard way for a Web site to do this is to use HTTPS, a secure version of the HTTP protocol. A site must install an SSL certificate, which confirms its identity and enables two-way encryption; your browser can independently verify that the certificate is valid and that it’s being used by the correct site. All this happens automatically, behind the scenes.
You’ll know a site uses HTTPS if the URL starts with https: (although many browsers now hide this portion of the URL) or if you see a lock icon (usually in green, along with the company’s name, right next to the URL in your browser’s address bar). You can then click the lock icon to view details about the certificate and confirm its identity.
Increasingly, sites that transmit or receive any personal data—even just a username and password—use HTTPS by default, which is an excellent idea. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you should assume any password or other personal data entered on a site that doesn’tuse HTTPS could be intercepted and misused. Some sites use HTTPS only optionally; you might look for a preference you can enable, which will automatically redirect you to the secure site even if you enter a URL starting with http:.
The EFF offers a free browser extension for Chrome and Firefox called HTTPSEverywhere (sorry, no Safari or Internet Explorer versions available). This extension maintains a regularly updated list of sites that offer HTTPS connections and instructs your browser to use HTTPS for those sites, even if you visit the site with a non-HTTPS link or URL. It can’t encrypt sites without HTTPS support, but it can prevent you from accidentally visiting an insecure version of a site.
You won’t be at all surprised, I’m sure, to learn that HTTPS, for all its virtues, is not foolproof. I’ve read of numerous hacks and exploits that could enable an attacker to intercept and decrypt a secure Web session. (Refer back to the sidebar SSL Implementation Bugsfor an example.) However, these are rare, and are generally fixed in short order. So, your best defense is to make sure you keep your operating system and browsers (including any security updates) current.
Manage Local Storage of Private Data
In On Your Device, I mentioned several types of (potentially) private data that may be stored on your device as you browse or use Internet-enabled applications. Here, I want to provide a bit more detail about this data and tell you what you can do about it.
It may be helpful to conceptually divide the stored data into two categories: live data—that is, information that may be sent from your browser to the sites you visit in real time—and historical data, which is accumulated on your device but not transmitted. Both types of data are normally stored separately for each browser you use, on each device.
When you visit a site and it sets a cookie, that by itself is generally harmless; it’s just a bit of text stored on your device. When you visit the same site later, it will read that cookie before displaying the page. Cookies are often helpful because they enable sites to save preferences for you, keep track of your login information so you need not enter your credentials each time you visit, and offer continuity (such as remembering which articles you have read) on successive visits.
Cookies have become a privacy problem because they’re often used for tracking you across sites. An ad, social networking widget, or analytics code on one site creates an identifier on your device that it can use to look up what you did there. If the next site you visit happens to use an ad, widget, or code from the same network, it can read the cookie to see what you’ve done in the past, and add information about your current visit. This process continues indefinitely, such that you may randomly visit a site for the first time and instantly see ads that are mysteriously targeted to your interests and location, including items you’ve searched for recently on Amazon.com, Google, or other sites.
Browser cookies aren’t the only sort of live data that your device may store and send to sites as you browse. When you use media plugins such as Flash and Silverlight, they may also collect, store, and transmit data in much the same way as conventional cookies—but they do so separately from your browser, which means disabling cookies in your browser may have no effect on this data. Numerous other plugins and extensions can also do this sort of thing, but, without a doubt, Flash cookies are the most common.
What’s HTML5 Web storage, you ask? It’s another way a Web page or application can store data in your browser and access it later. It was designed to be not only faster and more secure than cookies, but also to hold larger quantities of data. And in principle there’s nothing wrong with it—HTML5 Web storage can do neat things like cache webmail or map images so you can read them offline. But it’s still an imperfect system that can be used for undesirable purposes.
Cookies normally stick around on your device for quite some time, so in addition to sending live data about you as you browse the Web, they serve as historical evidence of the sites you’ve visited and some of the activities you’ve performed there.
Your browser may also store lists of pages you’ve visited (browsing history), files you’ve downloaded (download history), searches you’ve performed (search history), and information you’ve entered into form fields. Barring a bug or malicious exploit, your browser doesn’t transmit any of this data, but someone could examine your device after the fact and get a detailed record of where you’ve been.
As I said earlier, live data and historical data have entirely different privacy implications. You may find live tracking to be creepy and offensive but have no qualms about someone examining the browsing history on your computer; or you may have no issues with advertisers knowing what you’re up to but prefer to keep that information from, say, your employer (who might take a look at your computer when you’re not at your desk—or even use monitoring software).
Avoid or Remove Local Data
Broadly speaking, you can manage local data storage in either of two ways:
· Prevent data from being stored on your device in the first place—using browser settings, a private browsing mode, or third-party plugins/extensions.
· Erase stored data after the fact—either manually or using an automated tool.
You can use a number of methods for either approach, as I describe in a moment. But which way is best?
I think most people would agree it’s preferable to avoid getting sick than to cure an illness. By preventing data from being stored locally in the first place, you eliminate both the threat of live tracking and the potential for historical examination. Furthermore, clearing cookies and other local data after the fact may prevent you from being tracked from one session to the next, but not during a single session.
However, depending on your browser, operating system, and device, you may be unable to prevent data from being stored—or at least not with the granularity you prefer. For example, if a browser’s only option is to block all cookies, that may make your Web browsing experience worse because it prevents the use of helpful, first-party cookies.
So, what are your options for managing local data?
Private Browsing Modes
Safari and Firefox have Private Browsing (in Safari, choose Safari > Private Browsing; in Firefox, choose File > New Private Window). Google Chrome has Incognito windows (choose File > New Incognito Window; see Figure 9). Internet Explorer has InPrivate (click the gear icon and then choose Safety > InPrivate Browsing). Most other browsers have something similar. While you’re in one of these modes, your browser typically avoids storing data such as cookies; browsing, download, and search histories; form/autofill data; and page or image caches. Because the data isn’t stored at all, it eliminates both tracking and after-the-fact analysis.
Figure 9: Chrome’s Incognito window spells out what information it protects, as well as what possible privacy risks remain.
Note: Private browsing modes are somewhat less common (or at least harder to find) in mobile browsers, but options are improving. For example, in the iOS 7 version of Safari, open a new page and tap Private at the bottom. In the iOS version of Google Chrome, tap the Chrome menu button and tap New Incognito Tab. (See Browse Anonymously, ahead, for other mobile private browsing options.)
Private browsing modes are great for people who only occasionally—for specific sites or tasks—want to remain private. Turn them on when you need them; turn them off when you don’t. That way, the bulk of your Web browsing still has the benefits of first-party cookies, histories, and so forth, but you keep the private things private.
However, please keep the following in mind about private browsing:
· Plugins and extensions—including Flash—could still store data locally if they remain enabled, and there’s no guarantee that an unscrupulous tracker hasn’t invented some other sneaky trick to store data even when browsing privately. Browser beware.
· If you download a file, that file may not appear in your download history, but it’ll still be on your disk.
· Private browsing doesn’t stop you from manually bookmarking pages.
· Although your browser doesn’t store search terms while browsing privately, the search engine might (see Search Privately).
· DNS queries, which happen outside your browser, could still be cached on your device.
· Someone sniffing your Internet connection may still be able to see what sites you connect to, and server logs will still be kept.
Browser Privacy Settings
Whereas private browsing modes are temporary, you can usually fine-tune a browser’s preferences to specify permanent settings for which sorts of data should be stored locally (Figure 10). You can usually also examine or delete data already stored.
Figure 10: Firefox offers a variety of privacy settings; most other browsers have a similar range of options.
Once again, the range of choices varies by browser and platform, and I can’t cover every detail here. I will say, however, that you can usually make at least the following choices:
· Cookies: Block all cookies; accept all cookies; or (my recommendation) block only third-party cookies. You can also usually view all the stored cookies and delete any of them individually, or all of them en masse.
· Do Not Track: Your browser can ask sites not to track you, and I suggest you enable this feature—but sites may ignore the request. (See the sidebar Do Not Track, ahead.)
· Phishing and malware protection: Alert you to sites that may be fraudulent (especially phishing sites) and those suspected of containing malware. By all means, turn this on.
· Location tracking: Your browser may report your location in order to provide you with more useful results (for example, local weather, movie times, and stores) without your having to manually specify where you are. I generally find location tracking helpful, and I figure I’m already giving away my location by my IP address when not using Tor (see Browse Anonymously, ahead) or a VPN, so this isn’t much worse—although, to be fair, location data derived from Wi-Fi triangulation and GPS can be much more precise than what your IP address alone indicates. You can usually enable or disable location tracking on a per-site basis or globally, as you prefer.
· Search suggestions and history: When you start typing a search term, your browser may try to fill in the rest for you as a convenience feature. To do so, it may use a locally-stored list of your previous searches, but it’s probably also telling the search engine what you’ve typed so far (each and every keystroke!) and ask for a list of matches. This is usually beneficial, but can sometimes reveal more about you than your search terms alone. If you don’t want your browser storing your search terms or search engines trying to pre-guess what you want, turn these features off.
Here’s how to access privacy settings in a few popular desktop browsers:
· Firefox: Choose Firefox > Preferences and click Privacy (choose Use Custom Settings for History from the pop-up menu in the History section for additional options). Some privacy-related settings are also found on the Security pane.
· Google Chrome: Enter chrome:settings into the address bar. Then click the “Show advanced settings” link and look under Privacy. (Note that you must click Content Settings and Clear Browsing Data to access some of the settings.)
· Internet Explorer: Open the Internet Options control panel and look on the Privacy tab. You’ll need to click Sites and Advanced to see certain important settings.
· Safari: Choose Safari > Preferences and click Privacy. Also click Security for some additional privacy-related settings.
Do Not Track
Most modern browsers can (at your option) transmit a special Do Not Track header when they load a Web page that asks the site to pretty please not track your visit. And, by all means, you should turn this feature on because some sites will heed your request, and even those that don’t should know that you prefer it that way.
Unfortunately, Do Not Track is at this point merely a request. Advertisers, analytics companies, and social networks are free to ignore it, and often do. A movement is afoot to make Do Not Track more than a request—to enforce it technologically and also enact legislation that would punish sites that track users in violation of their requests. I’m not optimistic that either will happen, but I’ve been surprised before.
Web Privacy Software
Besides using private browsing modes and fiddling with browser settings, you can also install software that purports to enhance your Web privacy. I say “purports” because programs of this sort vary widely in their capabilities. Some are excellent, while others promise more than they can deliver, and some offer little that you couldn’t achieve simply by clicking a few buttons in your browser.
I couldn’t begin to review the full range of options. A Google search on “privacy software” turned up nearly three billion hits. So, I’ll just give a couple of examples.
One tool I’m quite fond of is Adblock Plus, a free extension available for Google Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Android. (Although Adblock Plus isn’t available for Safari, there is a shareware extension from a different developer called AdBlock for Safari that has many of the same capabilities.) Adblock Plus is highly customizable, letting you selectively or globally block ads, tracking cookies, and social media buttons (which let you tweet, like, or otherwise spread the word about a page—and track you in the process) without interfering with normal browsing and local storage the way private browsing modes do. It also offers protection against domains that could infect your computer with malware.
Another fantastic free tool is called Ghostery—available as a cross-platform browser extension for Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari; and as a stand-alone iOS Web browser. It displays a list of all the trackers of various sorts—both honorable and ignoble—present on any given Web page (Figure 11) and lets you enable or disable them (individually or by category). It’s highly educational as well as effective in increasing your privacy.
Figure 11: Ghostery briefly displays a pop-up showing which trackers it’s blocking when you load a site; you can individually enable or disable them as you like.
Then there are apps that strike me as a waste of money, such as SecureMac’s PrivacyScan for Mac and Symantec’s PC Tools Privacy Guardian for Windows (PC Tools Privacy Guardian was recently discontinued, but I’ve mentioned it because you may see it reviewed or already have a copy).
Both of these apps merely delete locally stored browser data (including browsing histories, conventional and Flash cookies, and so on) after the fact. To be fair, they can do this for multiple browsers at once, identify local data that your browser may be unaware of, and securely overwrite the data to prevent it from being undeleted. But it’s certainly possible to do all this manually, without any extra software. And in my opinion, such software misleads users by portraying “privacy” as merely preventing someone from seeing what’s on your computer. It does nothing to protect private information in transit, avoid the collection of tracking data as you browse, or disguise your identity in servers’ logs.
My overall recommendation about privacy software is to read the fine print. If a piece of software claims to solve all your privacy problems, take that claim with a grain of salt. Look into the details to see what it truly does, and whether that’s something you can’t achieve in a simpler way. And remember: prevention is nearly always preferable to cleanup.
Protect Passwords and Credit Card Info
Your passwords and credit card information are certainly among the items you’ll most want to keep private, but you can’t do very much on the Internet without entering a password, and most online shopping requires entering a credit card number. So you can’t realistically avoid ever sending these things over the Internet, but you can take steps to keep them private:
· Use a password manager. You may be familiar with password managers—apps such as 1Password, Dashlane, and LastPass that can generate, securely store, and enter passwords for you (see Figure 12). Users of Apple devices running OS X 10.9 Mavericks and/or iOS 7 can use a built-in password manager called iCloud Keychain (see the sidebar Security in iMessage and Other Apple Services).
You can also use password managers for credit card numbers, secure notes, and other private data. In addition to their obvious benefits, these apps can verify that you’re on the right site before handing over your password—yet another way to avoid phishing and DNS spoofing attacks.
Note: Most browsers have built-in password-filling tools, but they tend to be both less capable and less secure than full-blown password managers.
Figure 12: 1Password (Mac version shown here) securely stores passwords, credit card numbers, and other personal data, and syncs them among your devices.
I discuss password managers and other password strategies further in my book Take Control of Your Passwords. (And, if you decide to use 1Password as your password manager, I have a book all about that too: Take Control of 1Password.)
· Check for HTTPS. As you saw in Browse Securely, an encrypted Web session makes it much safer to send private data, and an unencrypted session is asking for trouble. So look for that lock icon before filling in any Web form containing private information.
Just ahead, in Shop Online Privately, I discuss further issues involving online commerce.
You know already how you can use a private browsing mode (or change your browser settings) to avoid having your search terms stored on your device. But the search engine could keep a record that someone at such-and-such an IP address performed a certain search at a certain time and date. Furthermore, if you’re logged in to the search site—for example, you’re logged in to your Gmail account while you do a Google search in the same browser—the site will store those search terms in your account and it knows exactly who you are, by name. Later, you may use the same search engine on an entirely different device and see those earlier terms pop up again! That could be either helpful or disconcerting.
Google does let you temporarily or permanently Turn off your Google Web History, and most other search providers do too. But you might forget, or might not have done the right things in every browser or on every device.
If you want to use a pretty good search engine that won’t log your results, period, try DuckDuckGo. All searches are completely anonymous. Nothing is logged, no tracking occurs…and there are no ads. And although the results aren’t always as thorough as with Google or Bing, DuckDuckGo is getting better all the time.
So far I’ve talked only about private Web browsing, but sometimes you may need greater assurances that your Web activities are anonymous, meaning they aren’t associated with you individually.
Note: You should never assume that anonymity on the Internet is absolute or permanent. Anonymity means making it extremely difficult to discover your identity—and although that’s often good enough, anonymous statements and activities can sometimes be traced back to the person who originated them.
I said in the Introduction that this is a book about ordinary privacy for ordinary people. And frankly, the picture I’m about to paint is far from ordinary. This is something a political dissident or a journalist in a highly secretive country might need to worry about, not a day-to-day privacy concern for regular folk. Still, it’s worth knowing about.
Imagine that your local Internet connection is encrypted using a VPN, which also hides your real IP address. Then you use your browser’s private browsing mode to eliminate all local data storage, and connect to a Web server using HTTPS, so the entire transaction is encrypted. That’s about as private as you can get—it’s extremely unlikely that any party between your device and the Web server will be able to see your information, and similarly unlikely that anyone who examines your device later on will be able to discover evidence of the session either.
However, don’t forget that the server still logs your visit. Server logs may provide enough other information (see On a Web Server to learn about browser fingerprints) to uniquely identify your computer. Furthermore, even though the server doesn’t know your real IP address, your VPN provider does, and it may have kept a log of your session that could be traced back to you. Finally, even though an encrypted connection protects the contents of the transmitted data, it doesn’t protect low-level routing information, which indicates the data’s origin and destination. (They can’t: intervening routers and switches need that information to pass your data along.) So, by combining all that information, someone could still discover that you were the person who visited a certain page at a certain time. For certain types of Web activity, that could put you in deep trouble.
If you need of near-complete anonymity when browsing the Web (including using webmail), you should be aware of something called Tor. Tor, which originally stood for “The Onion Router,” is a system that not only encrypts data but also does so multiple times, sending it through a series of randomly selected relays called nodes (see Figure 13)—each of which knows only about the previous and next node in the chain, but not the information’s origin (unless it happens to be the “entry” node) or destination (unless it’s the “exit” node). This process makes it extremely difficult to determine the source of any Web transaction. In addition, a component called Torbutton offers a fair degree of protection against browser fingerprinting.
Figure 13: When you use Tor, your connection to any server goes through a random series of nodes, each one adding a layer of encryption and further obscuring the sources of requests.
To use Tor on a Mac or Windows PC, you download software called Tor Bundle, which includes a customized version of Firefox and several other components, all with extremely strong privacy settings enabled by default (Figure 14). Full instructions for installation and use are on the Tor site. For Android, you’ll want Tor’s Orbot package; for iOS, you can use the third-party Onion Browser.
Figure 14: The Tor browser (left) along with Vidalia, another app in the Tor Bundle whose job is to establish anonymous connections.
Tor can dramatically increase the chances that your Web activities will be anonymous, but it’s not without its drawbacks. For example:
· Several weaknesses in the Tor system have been discovered that could be exploited under the right conditions to reveal private data. For example, someone who runs a Tor exit node could monitor unencrypted traffic flowing between it and the rest of the Internet—and indeed, it’s widely believed that the FBI runs a large number of Tor exit nodes to do just that. Using end-to-end encryption such as SSL/TLS reduces the risk of eavesdropping significantly, even if the exit node is compromised.
· Someone monitoring your Internet connection can tell that you’re using Tor, even though they can’t necessarily tell what you’re doing with it. Some ISPs and countries block all known Tor traffic. There are ways to work around this problem in some instances, but they make the process of Web browsing that much more cumbersome.
· Merely using Tor could result in unwanted attention from the NSA, including having your encrypted communications retained indefinitely.
· Using Tor makes Web browsing slow. No, I mean really slow. And forget watching videos, anyway—Flash, QuickTime, and other plugins are blocked because they pose too much of a security risk.
Privacy is hard. Anonymity is extremely hard.
Shop Online Privately
I’ve already talked about steps you can take to protect the privacy of your Web connection and your credit card information. As long as you’re using an encrypted connection, any purchase you make online should be strictly between you and the vendor. Well, you and the vendor and the vendor’s payment processor and your bank. And perhaps the fulfillment or shipping company. I can’t tell you how to shop anonymously online, but most online purchases from reputable companies are already as private as they can be.
One common source of anxiety is giving out your physical address. If you’re purchasing physical goods online, you have to provide a mailing address. Even if you’re buying digital goods with a credit or debit card, you’ll still be asked for your billing address (which helps to prevent credit card fraud—a good thing!). Other than renting a private mailbox, there’s not much to be done about that. You may not have to provide your home address, but you will have to provide some valid address at which you can receive statements. As long as you can do so over a secure connection, that shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
Another concern is the security of one’s credit or debit card number, even over an encrypted connection. What might happen to it once it’s in the vendor’s hands? Is it safe?
I can’t work up much fear about this, because laws and bank policies protect consumers against fraudulent use of a credit or debit card—or at least limit liability, as long as you report any suspicious transactions promptly. So, keep an eye on your bank statements online and call your bank immediately if anything appears amiss.
If that’s not good enough for you, I can offer a few other suggestions:
· When an online vendor asks to store your credit card to simplify future purchases, say no. If you’re using a password manager to enter credit card details, it’s only a matter of a few clicks anyway. However, even if you follow this policy generally, you might consider making exceptions for sites you shop from frequently, especially those with one-click checkout systems like Amazon and Apple. (It’s rare for a week to go by without my purchasing something—an app, album, ebook, or some other digital media—from one of these vendors, and I have become extremely fond of one-click shopping convenience.)
· Use PayPal if that’s an option. Now, I know a lot of people dislike PayPal for one reason or another, but one significant advantage is that it prevents vendors from seeing your credit card number (and, except for goods that must be shipped, your mailing address). Yes, you’re trusting PayPal with a credit card or bank account number, but at least that limits your exposure.
· See if your bank offers single-use credit card numbers for online purchases. Mine doesn’t, but many do, and if you want to be sure a credit card number isn’t misused after a single purchase, that could be an option.
Many other online payment systems exist—some of which go to greater lengths to protect your privacy. The best known is Bitcoin (which is accepted at an increasing number of online and brick-and-mortar businesses), but numerous other cryptocurrencies have sprung up. Feel free to experiment with these if you’re willing to accept some financial uncertainty. At this point, the entire field is too unpredictable for me to make any specific recommendations.