Cale Byers

Online Privacy Tips

Updated . Published .

This article starts with simple steps and gradually introduces other software and articles if you want to learn more and tinker with technology. I'm happy to answer any questions - send me an email.

Use an ad blocker

Avoid Google Chrome, especially on smart-phones, because you can't block advertising and other data-collection. Try Firefox, Brave, or Safari instead. Find alternatives to all Google products at No More Google or browse other options at De-google-ify Internet.

For iOS

All iOS browsers use Safari as the underlying app, but with a different layout or logo. If you use the "Chrome" app on iOS, you're really just using Safari with a Chrome logo. There are no technical improvements or other rendering engines, and Google collects your personal data for ad-targeting and surveillance. Stick with Safari, and install a content-blocker app, like Firefox Focus. I prefer Adguard for its custom settings, or for $2, there's a fantastic pro version of Adguard, which filters wifi and cellular data for all apps, saving data and improving privacy. You could also try the Brave app, which offers granular control of javascript blocking. The iPod Touch doesn't support content blockers yet, so you'll need to edit your domain name server (DNS), as explained later on this page.

For Android

Install the Firefox browser, then add these extensions from inside your new browser.

For a laptop

Install uBlock Origin for Firefox or Ghostery Lite for Safari. Apple's extensions are not very good, so I use Firefox. If you're using Google Chrome, stop! It's easy to migrate your data to Firefox. You could also try Brave, which is based on Chrome, just as the new Microsoft Edge is based on Chrome. I've written a detailed article about securing your browser on The Linfield Free Press, but these are great first steps.

Ad-blockers are always worth it: websites load significantly faster, saving mobile data or reducing congestion on your home wifi. They also improve your computer's security and put you in control of your device.

Change your Domain Name Server (DNS)

Your DNS helps connect you to the internet, and it can also block ads or other surveillance websites. Use NextDNS, a simple and powerful option, or edit your wifi settings, replacing your default DNS with these servers from Adguard:

  • 176.103.130.130
  • 176.103.130.131

Using Adguard's servers doesn't require software, at least not for iPhones, but it's not as powerful. I would recommend an app, so go read my post about DNS ad blocking, which gives more details.

Block 3rd-party cookies

iOS: Settings > General > Safari > Prevent Cross-Site Tracking

Other browsers: same general idea - only accept first-party cookies if possible, to block other tracking cookies. Some sites will break, but the web is getting better at cookie isolation. That also means advertisers are using other methods to track you, since 3rd-party tracking is less reliable as more people block these cookies. Privacy Badger is a cookie management extension that learns which websites track your activity, because they'll appear on multiple other websites. However, a good ad blocker usually will block everything, and I find Privacy Badger to be redundant. As you install more extensions, your browser will slow down, counteracting the benefits. Another cool extension is Lightbeam for Firefox, which graphs the websites you visit and the third parties that track you. Disconnect is another fun extension to look at, which is simpler than Lightbeam but less informative. Lightbeam is pretty neat to explore after browsing for a couple days. It generally takes a few days of normal browsing to build up an interesting graph. If you're impatient, open up your frequent sites, or some recent pages in your history.

Review location access

If you have mobile service, then your location is being logged thousands of times per day, no matter what you do. It cannot be stopped, and cell-network triangulation is a fundamental part of how they connect you to close servers. You can't get around it. This was one of my reasons for cancelling my cell service.

However, you can at least limit access by other apps, and it's simple. Newer versions of iOS will detect location tracking and ask you if you want to prevent an app from tracking you. In your iOS location settings, a purple icon indicates apps that have recently used your location. If you haven't recently used those apps, they're spying on you in the background.

Decide if you're comfortable giving away a map of your life and realtime location. Consider changing your settings or uninstalling apps that disrespect privacy. Many apps or websites allow you to use your ZIP code, rather than your exact location, and the results are the same. I try to use websites instead of apps whenever possible, to save space on my phone and improve my privacy. Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are very functional in a web browser, with only some features like Live Streaming requiring an app.


Additional Steps

Get rid of your smartphone. This makes it impossible for your phone to compromise your privacy by listening to your conversations, uploading your contacts, or doing anything else secretly. I recently got rid of mine, saving $30/month, and avoiding all associated privacy issues. When you have cell service, your device periodically checks in with cellular antennas, and they triangulate its location. You end up giving away thousands of precise location points each day, which can map your travel/activities, friends, and other personal information. Besides the privacy and cost, I waste a lot of time on smartphones and technology in general, so it made sense to cut it out entirely. Wifi is also generally good enough to not need service at all.

Try simpler versions of websites

Facebook: mbasic.facebook.com, an extremely lightweight and fast version without Javascript tracking. Some features are missing, but messages, notifications, and groups work totally fine. There are no distractions, and it just works.

Gmail: the basic HTML version is also simple and fast. You can upload files and accomplish most things without any Javascript. If you need modern features, you can easily switch back, but I prefer the older, fast design and don't use any new stuff. Gmail is also a privacy disaster, so I've started using ProtonMail instead.

Reddit: i.reddit.com, a retro design for early smartphones that is fast and simple. I don't know of any privacy improvements, but at least the site is usable and small, unlike their modern,slow website. You may also be interested in old.reddit.com, which is far better than the new reddit.

More software

uMatrix is an excellent tool for limiting website surveillance, but it's designed to be highly customized, taking time to setup. It will break some websites, but it gives you amazing control. (For simplicity, uBlock Origin is a good choice, made by the same developer).

Download the Tor Browser to browse the internet anonymously.

Check out TAILS, a small, efficient, privacy-focused operating system with encrypted storage

Further reading

If you're curious about digital surveillance, here's a summary of the process, and some links at the end for further reading.

When you visit a page, it generally contains external resources, like images, videos, advertisements, stylesheets (CSS), and javascript (JS). Your browser interprets the webpage and follows its requests, structuring everything into what you see as a webpage. On my site, this CSS file changes the default appearance, giving a structure. I recently wrote about my CSS file, explaining how it changes the default styles. Without CSS, page backgrounds are white, and links are blue. Everything looks pretty harsh.

Web designers can use code to improve how websites look or function. However, device features and web software are also exploited for surveillance, theft, and other obnoxious behaviors, like promoting mobile apps, auto-playing videos, or embedding Facebook's "Like" buttons in a news article.

In the past, there was no way to block pop-ups, but eventually browsers gave us that choice, because pop-ups were harming the experience online. Similarly, browsers are starting to increase protection and block annoying or disrespectful technologies today, prioritizing good experiences and user privacy. Firefox, Safari, and Brave are leading the fight for online privacy. Google Chrome fights against user privacy, because its business model depends on surveillance

Browsers can't possibly do everything we want, so they allow developers to write extensions, which are little bits of software that extend the functionality of our browsers. Extensions give new features to a browser, like blocking specific websites that collect and sell your history, preferences, or interests. Those extensions act as gatekeepers, inspecting requests and deciding what to block or allow. They use filters with thousands of rules, and you can create your own. Browsers and extensions are very flexible, giving people control over their computers.

As an example, if you're browsing kickstarter.com or many popular sites, requests are made in the background to Facebook, even though you didn't ask for Facebook to be notified about your activity. A blocker understands that kickstarter and facebook are different websites, so it can block those external requests, and you still get to use kickstarter, without being tracked by facebook.

To learn more about privacy, web surveillance, malware risks, and other fun stuff, here are some links I've enjoyed over the years: