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Our online privacy is something none of us seem to take particularly seriously.

We’re all quite happy to let Google follow our every move online. We’ll plaster our photos and innermost thoughts all over social media, whilst Amazon smart speakers listen to our conversations at home.

Every search, every visit, every purchase and every like you make online is contributing towards an unseen digital profile which can be analysed, manipulated and exploited, whether that is through targeted adverts, influencing of your political opinions or something even more sinister.

Have you ever heard the famous story that American retailer Target can tell if you’re pregnant before you can – purely based on your purchase history?

You heard it here first. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

There is no harm in being a bit more careful with your privacy and untangling yourself from the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world.

Whilst surrendering your data to large corporations may often feel like an inevitable part of modern life, it doesn’t have to be. There are now plenty of options for web browsers, search engines, email and messaging apps created by ethical, independent companies.

Here are some small changes you can implement to make your online life a little more private.

Privacy-focussed web browsers

As of February 2020, Google Chrome is used by 48% of internet users in the UK. Chances are you’re using it now; it’s a very good web browser.

However, like all of Google’s many free tools, it comes at the cost of letting it have access to all of your browsing data, especially if you are logged into a Google account (for example if you use Gmail or Google Analytics).

At the end of March (following Brexit), Google will be moving its UK users’ data from its servers in Europe to America. A possible implication of this is that following this move, there is no no guarantee that the UK’s existing GDPR laws will be enforced.

Thankfully, there are plenty of alternative browsers for you to try.

Brave is an independent, privacy focussed browser launched in 2015. It’s available on both desktop and mobile, and here’s what makes it special:

  • It has a built-in ad blocker
  • It does not track cookies (so you’re effectively incognito all the time)
  • It’s also pretty speedy (probably due to the lack of ads!)

Firefox is another excellent browser that has been around for years (yet only hold 3.6% share of the browser market in the UK). Developed by non-profit organisation Mozilla, it:

  • Has a variety of ad blocker extensions (albeit not automatically installed),
  • Alerts you if it suspects your information is part of a company’s data breach,
  • Has an extension to open Facebook in a private container to stop it accessing your browsing data, and also
  • Has some of the finest developer tools known to mankind.

In my case, I use Brave for general browsing. If I need to access my Google Account for work, I’ll do that separately in Chrome. When I’m building websites, I normally preview them in Firefox!

Search engine alternatives to Google

DuckDuckGo is a web browser that does not store your personal information or target your with personalised adverts. Photo from Unsplash.

If you’re looking to be more privacy conscious, you should consider switching to DuckDuckGo as your search engine of choice.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine with the proud boast: “Our privacy policy is simple: we don’t collect or share any of your personal information.”

The minimalist interface is a breath of fresh air. You’ll immediately appreciate the vastly reduced amount of adverts in your search results!

WhatsApp alternatives for messaging

Zucking with your privacy. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, who in 2019 made plans to share data between its other properties: Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

If the idea of Zuckerberg and co. mining your group chats for advert fodder makes you want to throw up a little, you might want to check out these privacy-focussed messaging apps.

Signal uses end-to-end encryption for private messaging and calls, and is becoming increasingly popular with journalists and politicians. It’s also endorsed by privacy advocate Edward Snowden. In October 2014, the non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation included Signal in its updated surveillance self-defence guide.

Telegram is another popular choice for privacy-focussed messaging (although according to Wikipedia it does seem to be the go-to messaging app for ISIS, so make of that what you will).

Unfortunately, swapping your messaging app is easier said than done, as it’s only really feasible if your contacts do it too.

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Private email alternatives to Gmail

There are many other options to Gmail when it comes to your email provider, one of which is ProtonMail.

Unlike Gmail and Outlook.com, ProtonMail uses client-side encryption to protect both email content and user data before they are sent to the servers. This end-to-end encryption service was founded by CERN researchers seven years ago. It’s now available through a webmail client, dedicated apps for iOS and Android, and the Tor network (free, open-source software for enabling anonymous communication).

For my emails I use Thunderbird – first developed by Mozilla in 2004, when it was downloaded a million times in the first ten days after its launch.

Mozilla Thunderbird is described as a free and open-source cross-platform email client. It prioritises simplicity, security and privacy, with features such as remote content blocking and built-in Do Not Track.

Protecting your customers’ privacy

Every step you take… Photo by Tony Liao on Unsplash

So far we’ve looked at ways you can protect your own data, but what can you do to help protect your website visitors’ data?

First off, you should have an SSL certificate to ensure any submitted form data is encrypted as well as a robust and clear privacy policy so your customers can understand how you handle their data.

On a wider scale, you need to look at reducing or removing the use of cookies (particularly third-party cookies) on your website.

If you’ve got an embedded third-party social media widget (such as a Facebook page feed or social sharing functionality), they will typically add loads of cookies to your website.

My advice here is to remove them. Not only will it improve the privacy on your website, but your pages will load faster, too. And chances are that nobody is using them anyway.

Alternatives to Google Analytics

The other main source of cookies on your website will most likely be from any website analytics you have installed.

It’s incredibly useful to know how your visitors end up on your site and how they behave when they get there so you can make intelligent improvements. As much as I think Google Analytics is great, once again it’s at the price of passing your website usage data to Google. With my increasing skepticism towards Google and their motives, this year I’ve been researching more independent, privacy-focussed alternatives.

Throughout March I’m trialing Fathom Analytics, a simple and privacy-focussed analytics software to measure the traffic to PaulJardine.co.uk. I hope to roll it out on some of my client sites over the coming months.

Fathom only tracks a limited number of important stats, such as Page Views and Bounce Rate. It keeps your visitor data anonymous, and what’s more, it doesn’t use cookies. This means you don’t need an ugly cookie notification bar on your website!

I’m not perfect but I’m making progress

My current setup is:

  • Browser: Brave and Firefox
  • Search Engine: DuckDuckGo
  • Email Client: Mozilla Thunderbird
  • Messaging: Signal and Whatsapp
  • Analytics: Currently switching from Google Analytics to Fathom (update: I did it!)

I’ve made a lot of positive changes, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be made. For example, whilst I was able to delete my Facebook account a few years ago, I still use Instagram and WhatsApp. I’ll even be using Google Docs to share this blog with my copy editor!

That said, I look at improving your privacy online in the same way I view reducing your carbon footprint. Rather than trying to be perfect yourself, making small positive changes where you can and encouraging others to do the same will have a greater benefit overall.

I hope you’ve found some useful privacy-focussed alternatives to your digital work tools in this article. You can find plenty more recommendations at Switching.software.

If you’d like to learn more about the importance of online privacy check out Laura Kalbag’s work at The Small Technology Foundation (Laura’s talk at New Adventures 2020 is what motivated me to make the changes listed in this blog).

What positive changes are you making to your online privacy?

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