Several shades of online privacy
…and there are several easy-to-use options that can make a huge difference in your privacy points out Thorsten Sick, Security Architect of the Avira Scout browser project and Avira’s privacy champion.
Incognito is not very incognito
The Incognito mode on a browser dates back to the early renaissance of the Internet Age, a time with shared computers in cafes and libraries. With multiple people using a single device, a critical step in security online privacy was to use the incognito mode where passwords, site addresses, and session details were not recorded in the computer. After all, who hasn’t been on a shared computer and not seen what the previous person was doing?
Sometimes (incorrectly) called the ‘safe porn’ function, incognito reduces the chances that a web surfer will leave their browsing history behind on the computer or, even worse, inadvertently forget to logout. While the specifics can vary between browsers, incognito essentially means that you will not leave your browsing history, cached data, and cookies directly on the computer.
Incognito mode is more notable about what it does not do than what it does. First, it does nothing to encrypt online communication from being viewed at the network or the Internet Service Provider level. Second, it does nothing to block trackers following your web activity – even if nothing is visible on the computer. Combine these factors together and incognito is not very incognito at all.
Browser VPNs are a start (as far as they go)
Browser VPNs can help shield user privacy – in a limited way. Available as optional extensions to many browsers. Browser VPNs are primarily used as a way to access geo-restricted sites and as a shield against spies (such as local network admins looking for users connecting to certain servers or checking IP addresses).
VPN – life in a tunnel
Virtual Private Networks, more simply called a VPN, create a secure virtual tunnel between the users’ computer and the VPN provider’s remote server – wherever it may be. A VPN can hide or encrypt traffic within a local network, making them an essential app for conferences, hotels, untrusted/hostile networks and even the workplace – as they can enable happy Facebook surfing during working hours! Depending on the remote servers’ location, users can be virtually anywhere – freeing up geo-restricted content.
While a VPN does require proper installation, this is a much, much simpler process than it used to be. With Avira’s Phantom VPN, it is essentially a plug and play process for Android, Apple, or Windows devices.
Wherever one goes on the internet, someone is watching – and usually more than just one. Avira researchers recently counted more than 20 trackers on a single web page of a German publisher. While most are not malicious – and may actually help make your web/shopping experience better – do you actually want the data brokers to know so much about you? Two anti-tracking options to consider are Avira Browser Security (ABS) and Privacy Badger.
ABS helps block trackers as well as keeping users from accidentally downloading something nasty. It is backed by a blacklist of suspect and malicious URLs that Avira has collected as it protects users about the globe
Privacy Badger identifies trackers by their activities, the company they keep, and incorporates user feedback into its blocking activities. It also helps users disable the tracking functionality in Twitter and Facebook buttons and stops canvas fingerprinting. Both ABS and Privacy Badger are fully incorporated into the Avira Scout Browser.
TOR, Tails, and onions
The Tor privacy network has been in the news for some good and bad reasons. The network encrypts communication, then bounces it through a network of traffic and relay points to conceal the original sender’s location. It’s called Tor after its early name, “The Onion Router”. It’s designed to keep anyone watching your internet connection from learning about where you are going and, on the other side, the sites you visit from getting your location.
Tor does have some weaknesses, for example, with its list of relay points reportedly vulnerable to blocking or eavesdropping by hostile countries. Some browser plugins can be tricked into revealing your IP address. Tor also has performance issues and malicious exit nodes can monitor and manipulate traffic, if it is not https encrypted. They can’t choose their victim, but get a random one. Tor is able to kick those malicious exit nodes out of the network as soon as they are identified.
The supplement to Tor is Tails – a complete Debian GNU/Linus based operating system that runs independently from your computer’s OS. It forces all internet connections to go through the Tor network, encrypts files, and leaves no traces on your computer. And, it can be downloaded onto a memory stick for a complete physical separation from your device. Not everyone loves it, apparently, the NSA hates it. And, it has quite a complex installation process that is not for everyone.
Privacy wrap-up by the layer and network
Privacy is like getting dressed on an unpredictable day: Look at the forecast and dress in layers according to your needs. Whether you consider yourself a fairly normal online human or are an embedded journalist in a war zone, use a technology that fits your needs:
- Casual online human – get separate accounts and forget about using the Incognito mode.
- Online human – use anti-tracking apps such as ABS and Privacy Browser.
- Curious human – try a browser VPN to circumvent geo-restrictions.
- Working on networks that you do not control – get a VPN and use it.
- Traveling and want the news from home – yes, do get a VPN for sure.
- Journalist, NGO, activist – you really need to invest some time in setting up Tails on your device.
“These technologies can and should be combined in a smart way to fit your needs and the situation,” pointed out Thorsten Sick. “Everyone – whether they are just an online human or an activist – should have separate accounts and not have to use Incognito mode, there are way better options available.”