The web is an ever-changing torrent of information. Sites make it difficult to understand their conditions for use and what they may do with your information; links go places you shouldn’t trust; search engines filter what you see. Thankfully, there are a number of tools that can help you address these issues in just three steps, keeping you both safe and informed.
Step 1: Step Outside The Bubble
Google is a wonderful search engine… but that power comes at a cost. Google tracks everyone that uses it, and filters its search results based on your location and browsing history. Sometimes these features can be useful; at other times, they are invasive and distorted. More disturbingly, Google will change or avoid suggesting search terms, or not show certain results, based on its assumptions about cultural standards.
Avoiding this “filter bubble” means stepping away from Google and using a search service like DuckDuckGo, which does not track or filter. Dependence on Google can be a hard habit to break, so I would suggest making a few changes to your browser to help you make the transition:
In Firefox: go to duckduckgo and click on the “Use in Firefox” button on the bottom left. In the window that appears, choose Make this the current search engine and click Add.
Chrome makes the process a little trickier. Go to duckduckgo.com, click on the “Use In Chrome” button and follow the five-step process that is presented: it only takes a few seconds to complete.
After taking these steps, searches in the URL bar or search bar will come up with unfiltered, untracked DuckDuckGo search results, rather than Google. Of course, you can always go to google.com if you want to use it for something. You can even do so from within DuckDuckGo, by preceding your search terms with !g. For example: !g tailfeathers will prompt DuckDuckGo to give you Google results for “tailfeathers”.
Step 2: Know Your Rights
No-one reads the long Terms of Service contracts provided by sites and apps: most are terrible at explaining what’s going on, obfuscating your rights behind legalese. There are two tools I would recommend to untangle this mess:
Terms of Service; Didn’t Read provides a rating for sites based upon their privacy standards. It also provides clear explanations of what the Terms of Service allow them to do with your information.
One of the ways social media services keep users locked in is by providing the impression that exporting your contributions and data is impossible. But for the majority of sites, that’s no so: Free My Data steps you through the process of taking charge of your own information.
Step 3: Use a Web of Trust
It’s not always clear where links lead, or the trustworthiness of sites. While browsers have gone some way towards addressing this, there will always be sites that remain on the fringes, undetected by search engines. In such cases, you can use a reputation service like Web of Trust , which provides easy-to-understand rated icons beside links. Such services depend on the “wisdom of crowds” and active participation by users to be valuable, but they can be a very handy method of visually flagging links in search engine results.
Step 4: Check If You Have Been Breached
eMail addresses, password, credit card and other information may be leaked by a major hack into a company. It can be difficult to determine if you are part of this breach; sites like Have I Been Pwned can check for your eMail address in databases of leaked information.
With a hardened browser and improved, trustworthy information, there’s just a few steps left to take to erase your tracks online: eMail encryption and using a VPN. I’ll cover both options in a future article.
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