When I originally wrote this article at the start of 2020, I opened up with the comment “Our online privacy is something none of us seem to take particularly seriously”.
Thankfully, a year on I’ve started to notice an attitude shift, as people being a bit more mindful about protecting their digital privacy.
That said, we’re all using digital technology more than ever. This makes for a veritable feast of data for the internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to gobble on.
Every search, every visit, every purchase and every like you make online is contributing towards an unseen digital profile. This can then be analysed, manipulated and exploited, whether through targeted adverts, influencing 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?
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 email, web browsers, search engines 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 2021, Google Chrome is used by a whopping 49% 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).
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 holds 3% share of the browser market in the UK). Developed by non-profit organisation Mozilla, it:
- blocks third party trackers and cookies by default,
- has an extension to open Facebook in a private container to stop it accessing your browsing data,
- alerts you if it suspects your information is part of a company’s data breach, 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!
Ethical search engine alternatives to Google
If you’re looking to be more privacy conscious, you should consider switching to DuckDuckGo as your search engine of choice.
The minimalist interface is a breath of fresh air. You’ll immediately appreciate the vastly reduced amount of adverts in your search results!
Climate-conscious searchers should also check out Ecosia, which is privacy friendly and also plants trees for each query!
Privacy-focussed WhatsApp alternatives for messaging
WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and as of February 2021 a change in the messaging app’s terms and conditions requires WhatsApp users to share their personal data with the Facebook empire.
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).
Admittedly I was a little apprehensive about deleting WhatsApp as so many of my family and friends use it. However, after I explained my reasons for installing Signal instead, most of them joined me.
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.
I’m also keeping my eye out for a Windows desktop version of the excellent Spark Mail.
Ethical Google Analytics alternatives
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, I’ve been researching more independent, privacy-focussed alternatives.
In 2020 I switched to using Fathom Analytics, a simple and privacy-focussed analytics software to measure the traffic to PaulJardine.co.uk, and have never looked back.
Protecting your customers’ privacy
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?
If you’ve got an embedded third-party social media widget (such as a Facebook page feed or social sharing functionality), it 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.
Check out my article on why you should remove third party trackers from 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
- Analytics: Fathom
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 have an Instagram account. I’ve stopped using Google Docs to share files, but all my photos are still backed up on Google Photos.
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.
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?