Simple Steps to Help Protect Your Data Privacy

Picture of social media app icons on a phone home screen

It’s astonishing how much data is collected on every person. In 2019, the New York Times Privacy Project was given access to a data set of tracking data, and were able to trace day-to-day, moment-by-moment, the locations of most Americans. They zoomed in to Pasadena, California, and were able to track the exact movements of the city sheriff, a rocket scientist, and children. Facebook created a profile of you with your location, social network, and phone number, all before you even joined the site, simply by creeping through your friends’ phones.

I want to give you some easy tips for how to keep your privacy protected. There are many things you can do to help keep your information protected, but I tried to stick to things that are easy enough anyone can do them, and cheap enough that most people making above minimum wage in a Western nation can afford them.

Things that are very easy to do (<5 minutes) and also free

Ublock Origin blocks lots of advertisers and trackers. It will make pages load faster, drastically cut back the amount of annoying ads you see, and generally help reduce the number of eyeballs on your web traffic. Definitely get this specific ad blocker — many are actually run by advertisers as a way to keep an eye on people trying to opt out (including the very similarly named “Ublock” adblocker). You can see in the image below that in the 3 months since I got my current computer Ublock Origin has blocked one hundred and eighty four thousand domains from tracking and advertising to me.

Ublock Origin Popout showing it blocks 15 domains on twitter, and has blocked 184,000 domains since installed
Ublock Origin Popout showing it blocks 15 domains on twitter, and has blocked 184,000 domains since installed

Signal replaces your texting app. If you’re texting someone with Signal, it sends a safe, fully encrypted message using wifi or 4G instead of texting them. (Whatsapp does this too, but it creeps on you in other ways). If you don’t have data, or your contact doesn’t have Signal, it warns you, and then seamlessly switches to regular texting.

Snapchat probably doesn’t need your location. Facebook doesn’t need your contacts or camera. Discord doesn’t need your location.

Things that are free, but slightly inconvenient (~15–30 minutes work)

Mozilla Firefox Logo
Mozilla Firefox Logo

Google owns Chrome, and spies on you through it. I use Firefox on every device I own, and it works really well. They’re open source, respect your privacy, and do excellent work on privacy initiatives. My boyfriend uses Brave. It’s made by ex-Firefox folks, is privacy focused, and has a built in ad-blocker. You will want to transfer your browser history, here’s how to do that in Firefox and Brave. Don’t forget to re-install any add-ons you may have added (like uBlock Origin!)

Google Search is really creepy. You can avoid this in two ways. If you’re willing to give up Google’s best-in-the-field search results, you can use DuckDuckGo, a privacy focused web search tool. If you still want to use Google, you can route your googles through Startpage, which runs the search for you and returns the results to you, leaving you anonymous to Google.

Things that are relatively convenient (< 30 minutes) and relatively cheap (<$5/month)

A Virtual Private Network essentially blocks websites from obtaining information about where you are, and which device you’re using by making it look like all your web usage is coming from them. It makes you much, much harder to track, assuming you’re also taking the other precautions listed here. Firefox VPN is $5/month, and lets you use up to 5 devices on it.

Things that are cheap, but moderately inconvenient

If you’re using a free email service, you’re being data mined. If you’re using Gmail, Google is linking your emails to your dad to their profile that also contains your medical searches, your potentially horrifyingly incorrect political views, and your porn searches (Incognito mode means your browser doesn’t remember it, but google still does). ProtonMail has a free version with some features locked out, but it’s honestly worth the $3/month I’m paying them (they run specials fairly often) to not have my emails be scanned by Google’s all seeing eye. The main inconvenience here is that for the first year or so, you will need to refer back to your old email service for old emails.

And finally, a very high impact, but pretty inconvenient option

Mastodon is ad-free, very similar to Twitter, and doesn’t track you. Switching to Mastodon is pretty easy, you can just join their main social server if you don’t want to tool around with setting up your own. Getting all your friends to switch to Mastodon is a more sizeable task. Personally, I intend to post my personal stuff on Mastodon, while still maintaining my professional account on Twitter where (for better & worse) it’s much more visible.

Conclusion

Did you at least do the really easy stuff? No? Go do it. I’ll wait.

Would you let another a stranger know what Google and Facebook know about you? Why is it better for it to be a corporation who also knows everything about your friends and family? (It’s not).

Senior @ UTD, Web Dev & the Digital Humanities | Roamcult | ii