Tuesday, July 02, 2013

How To Protect Your Privacy Online

The internet is becoming more and more hostile towards privacy. Did you know that websites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter know about every webpage you visit on the web?!

How do they do that?! There are several techniques for such websites to monitor your every move on the web. The two most important ones are 1- Referers and 2- Cookies. These two tools can be used by any website that has content borrowed from it on another website.

Consider for example the Facebook's "Like" button that is omnipresent all over the internet. Everytime a website shows you the "Like" Facebook knows that you visited that webpage. Facebook knows even that it is precisely YOU who visited if you have a Facebook account because the Facebook cookie is sent along with the request.

What is a cookie?! A cookie is a set of information that is stored by your browser that is sent to websites that you visit. Each website has it's own cookie, and that cookie is sent everytime you visit that website again. For example, if you signed up to Facebook, closed your browser, and at a later point of time visited Facebook again, you'd notice that you visit that page already logged on with the same account you visited Facebook the last time. This is because the browsers sends Facebook a cookie that lets them know it's the same person (or more precisely, it is the same browser being used).

Now, the same cookie that is used to identify you when you visit Facebook.com is also sent with every page that you visit over the web that has a Facebook "Like" button. So, every time you see Facebook's "Like" button the Facebook company that you (identified by your user account) has visited that specific page.

The same applies to Google, which is even more omnipresent on the web, even in ways that are hidden and not immediately visible. So, even if you don't see the "Google Plus" icon in a website, there is a good chance that Google knows that you visited that particular page.

Google also tracks which links you clicked when you search using their search engine. They used to hide this fact in the old days, but they are openly admitting it now. If you ever saw the "Search History" feature, you'll know what I am talking about.

So, what's the solution?!

The best available solution is to use Firefox 22 (or later version) and do some tweaking that will be explained now.

Google Chrome users have weaker protection available to their privacy, so Firefox is still recommended, but I will point out the equivalent methods for Google Chrome users.

1- Disable Third-Party Cookies Completely

The first step is to disable 3rd-party cookies. The latest Firefox versions (ie. 22 and later) have stronger protection against 3rd-party cookies than the previous versions. Other web-browsers provide the same level of protection that Firefox 21 (and earlier) used to provide.

Note that the "Accept third-party cookies" option is set to "Never".

For Google Chrome: read here

2- Install Adblock Plus with the additional subscriptions

Installed Adblock Plus. Additionally, install the Popup Blocker.

And finally, add the following subscriptions:
1- Easylist (installed by default, so skip this one)
2- EasyPrivacy
3- Fanboy's Annoyances

For Google Chrome: Install Adblock Plus from here

3- Block Referers:

Install Smart Referer.

For Google Chrome: There is no simple alternative. The best I could find is this. However, this extension requires manual configuration to work.

4- Block Flash-based Cookies:

Install Better Privacy.

(No Google Chrome equivalent)

5- Google search link fix:

If you don't want Google to remember the websites you visited, and have no interest in using the "Search History" feature, this addon stops Google from knowing which websites you visited from their search engine.

(No Google Chrome equivalent)

PS: If anyone knows about Google Chrome equivalents that I am not aware of, please share in the comments section.

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