WHAT’S IN THIS REVIEW?
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In the words of Edward Snowden:
“[…] Saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say […] or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe.”Edward Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record
Regardless of whether or not you have anything to hide, everyone should have the right to separate their personal life from the public eye. Yet, as more people trade their data for the ability to use “free” services like Facebook or Google, it becomes increasingly harder to maintain any level of online privacy. Even in incognito mode, you are being watched. Nearly every private and state-sponsored organization with a self-interest online is monitoring, recording, and storing data on all your activities. After all, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
To put an end to this personal invasion, we recommend adding a few privacy tools to your devices. Here’s an overview of the most useful online tools and services helping people take back their privacy.
Virtual Private Networks
It’s true the internet is great for sharing information, but it’s not designed to protect your privacy or encrypt your data. Without online privacy tools of your own, this leaves you exposed to bad actors like snooping ISPs and cybercriminals. One of the easiest ways to avoid this is by using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN essentially masks your IP address to make it harder for peeping eyes to monitor your online activities. Best of all, it’s very easy to set up and use.
If you’re looking for additional privacy from your ISP, while connected to public WiFi, or for torrenting P2P files, a VPN is the solution for you. However, a VPN won’t add security to non-secure (HTTP) traffic, so you’ll want to think about that as you build your privacy toolbox. For full anonymity, you should pair a secure VPN with the Tor Browser. This secure web browser comes with pre-installed privacy addons and encryption to truly cover your tracks.
There are hundreds of free and paid VPNs to choose from, but most fall short of their promises. If you want real online privacy, stick to fully-audited providers that put users first. A few worth noting are NordVPN and ProtonVPN. Both use AES-256 encryption to protect your data, reside in safe jurisdictions, accept cryptocurrencies as payment, and are proven to successfully mask users online.
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Private Web Browsers
The two most popular web browsers by a landslide are Google Chrome and Apple Safari. They offer users an effortless browsing experience and come fully integrated into Android and Apple devices. However, neither is great for online privacy. To protect yourself while browsing, you’ll want to look for a service that offers secure add-ons, encryption, and built-in ad blockers. Some of the best web browsers for privacy include Firefox, Tor, and DuckDuckGo.
Mozilla Firefox is a secure web browser with frequent updates and patches. While not the perfect out-of-the-box service, it offers additional browser add-ons to bolster your online privacy. Because the Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit, Firefox also has no incentive to sell any of your personal data. We recommend using Firefox for everyday web browsing.
Endorsed by Edward Snowden himself, Tor (also known as The Onion Router) is best for users in need of an extra layer of anonymity. It uses an in-house connection protocol called onion routing, which reroutes users’ data packets through three different nodes (i.e. routers). It also deploys the software extension NoScript to wipe any prior web traffic to ensure the tracks of your browsing history are covered. Since this routing technique takes longer than regular connections, it tends to slow down users’ speeds. For this reason, we recommend using Tor for activities like browsing or reading online rather than streaming.
DuckDuckGo is another great web browsing solution that comes with a built-in ad-blocking feature and a private search mode. It also forces sites to reload within an HTTPS encrypted connection when available, so your data is never compromised. You can download it as its own app on a macOS, iOS, or Android device or add it to your Chrome browser as an extension.
According to NordPass, some of the most common passwords people still use today include 123456, password, and qwerty. It’s okay if you’re a part of that lineup; that’s what we’re here for. With cyberattacks on the rise, your online accounts – be it financial, retail, or leisure – are all ripe for the taking. Hackers won’t hesitate to test your password vulnerabilities, so it’s important to safeguard your personal information at all times.
Like VPNs, many password management services promise you the world, yet end up delivering the bare minimum in practice. Of the hundreds available today, we only recommend a few password managers to secure your logins including Bitwarden and NordPass. As privacy tools go, these are plug-and-play services that run themselves in the background for the most part.
Known for its airtight security and capable free tier, Bitwarden is an open-source password manager with no-knowledge architecture, AES-256 encryption, multiple authentications (2FA and U2F). Users can easily transfer their passwords over with ease, and it’s available for desktop, all browsers, Android, and iOS.
NordPass is NordVPN’s password manager, and it packs a lot into a simplified service. While it’s not open-source, NordPass utilizes much of the same security measures that BitWarden does including AES encryption and multi-factor authentication (MFA) methods like biometric logins and physical keys. It also runs on a zero-knowledge architecture, so not even it knows what you store in your account.
Private Email Services
While some may quip that “email is dead,” it’s very much alive. It’s used for a host of internet activities like communications, marketing, and data storage. Depending on which email service you use, your data could be compromised in more ways than you can count.
For example, did you know that Gmail allows third-party services to peep through your emails in order to serve you targeted ads? Moreover, Google uses its own ecosystem of “free” services to collect copious amounts of data on you. In addition to Big Tech monitoring, hackers can also intercept and access your private messages. So, any confidential information you send using a non-encrypted email (i.e. passwords or addresses) is vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
If you want to avoid this type of privacy breach, you need a secure email provider. Of all privacy tools, this probably houses most of your sentive information. The most reputable email services we recommend are ProtonMail and Tutanota.
In tandem with ProtonVPN, ProtonMail is based in Switzerland and offers both free and paid subscriptions. This email service comes with security features such as end-to-end encryption, anti-phishing, anti-spam, two-factor authentication, and accessibility via the Tor Network. They cannot decrypt your emails and therefore keep your data safe from online snoopers and dangerous cyber threats.
Tutanota is based in Germany and utilizes symmetric and asymmetric encryption technology to secure messages. It encrypts emails end-to-end when both parties are active Tutanota users. Otherwise, it allows users to send password-protected emails to non-Tutanota recipients. It also offers a variety of native apps for desktop and mobile that easily integrate into users’ workflows.
Data Leak Tests
Many times, users suffer cyber-attacks due to data leaks. Also known as a data breach, a data leak is the accidental release of confidential or protected information to an untrusted party. These leaks can include IP address leaks, DNS leaks, WebRTC leaks, and torrent leaks – among others.
In addition to default features like HTTPS encrypted connections and multi-factor authentication logins, the privacy tools we listed above are intended to protect users from exactly these kinds of slips. However, not all tools are as secure as they promise and hackers tend to pick on the lowest hanging fruit.
If you suspect that a device(s) or online account experienced a data leak, here are a few privacy tools and services you can use to safeguard your information or confirm your suspicions.
IP/DNS Leak Test
If you ever want to check your device for any IP/DNS/WebRTC leaks, we recommend visiting IPleak.net. It’s a free resource powered by AirVPN that detects data leaks on your devices. You can enter your IP address or a domain name into its search bar, and it will generate a report outlining any data leaks it detects.
HaveIBeenPwned is a free resource that allows users to quickly and easily assess if they are potentially at risk due to any of their online accounts being compromised, or “pwned,” in a data breach. When a user types in their phone number or email address, the site cross-references it with current breach databases to see if they come up. If you ever suspect that an account of yours has been hacked or compromised in any way, this is a good tool to set the record straight.
Also referred to as an emergency stop, a kill switch is a feature many VPNs provide to ensure that no data is leaked if a user’s VPN connection cuts off unexpectedly. When activated, the kill switch will shut down or disable your device in the event that your internet goes down so that no information can be transferred through an unsecured connection. If you’re serious about maintaining online privacy, we recommend enabling it at all times on all of your devices.
Take Back Your Privacy
The internet has a funny way of making the world feel smaller, but never forget that your data doesn’t have to be a part of that shrinking process. No amount of convenience should diminish the importance of your personal privacy – on or offline. It’s never too late to establish some baseline practices to protect yourself online.
To jumpstart the process, we recommend getting a trustworthy VPN if you don’t already have one. It’s usually the first step to taking back your privacy, and the best providers already come strapped with bonus features like ad blockers, password managers, and data leak protection.