With both governments and corporate entities trampling over the privacy rights of people throughout much of the world, choosing the right privacy tools is now more important than ever.
Why should you be using privacy tools in the digital age?
Let us answer this question by examining a few trends:
- Global surveillance – mass surveillance technology continues to strengthen and expand around the world – particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and other Western countries. (See also the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes & 14 Eyes surveillance alliances.) This trend continues on, regardless of which political party is in office.
- ISP Spying – Internet providers often record connection times, metadata, and DNS requests, which gives them every website you visit (unless you’re using a good VPN). In many countries, this is not only legal, but required. See for example in the United Kingdom (with the Investigatory Powers Act), United States (Senate Joint Resolution 34), and now also in Australia (mandatory data retention). A VPN is now essential protection against your internet provider if you want to retain a basic level of online privacy.
- Censorship – The internet is also becoming less free due to censorship efforts and content blocking. Whether it is China, Germany, or the United Kingdom, authorities are working hard to censor content online. This is particularly the case in Europe. The UK is now considering 15 year jail sentences for people who view “offensive” websites.
- Malicious ads & tracking – Websites are increasingly hosting invasive advertisements that also function as tracking. Pop-ups and dangerous “click-bait” ads can also deliver malware and take your device over for ransom (ransomware). Malicious ads, which are delivered through third party ad networks, can even be hosted on major websites.
While the trends are alarming, there are relatively simple solutions to restore both your privacy and security.
But before we begin, one key consideration is your threat model. How much privacy and security do you need given your unique situation and the adversaries you may face?
Many people, such as every day internet surfers, are seeking protection against advanced tracking online through advertising networks as well as a higher level of online anonymity and security. Others, such as investigative journalists working with sensitive information, would likely opt for an even higher level of protection.
Here are some privacy and security tools to get you started.
Secure and privacy-friendly browser
Everyone needs to be using a secure and privacy-friendly browser for three important reasons:
- Browsers have a large attack surface and can be compromised in many ways.
- By default, most browser will contain lots of private information, including your browsing history, usernames, passwords, and autofill information, such as your name, address, etc.
- Browsers can reveal lots of identifying information about your location, system settings, hardware, and much more, which can be used to identify you through browser fingerprinting.
Secure Browsers: Here are some great options from the best secure browser guide:
- Firefox – Firefox is a great browser for both privacy and security. It is highly customizable to give you the level of security and privacy you desire, while also being compatible with many browser extensions.
- Waterfox – Waterfox is a fork of Firefox, with telemetry and other items stripped out to give users more privacy. It is based on Firefox 56 with ESR patches.
- Brave – Brave is a chromium-based browser that is very privacy-focused right out of the box, unlike Firefox, which requires some customization. By default, it will block ads and trackers, and it’s also customizable, fast, and has built-in protection against browser fingerprinting.
- Pale Moon – Like Waterfox, Pale Moon is also a fork of Firefox, but an older version (based on Firefox 38 ESR).
- Tor browser – The Tor browser is hardened version of Firefox that also utilizes the Tor network by default (but this can be disabled). It should be noted that Tor was created by the US military and continues to be funded by the US government today. (See the in-depth Tor guide for more details.)
Browser add-ons worth considering – As discussed in the Firefox privacy guide, here are a few good browser add-ons that may be worth considering:
- uBlock Origin – A powerful blocker for advertisements and tracking.
- HTTPS Everywhere – This forces an HTTPS connection with the sites you visit.
- Decentraleyes – Protects against third-party tracking via content delivery networks (CDNs).
- Cookie AutoDelete – Deletes those unwanted tracking cookies.
- Privacy Badger – Another add-on from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Badger blocks spying ads and trackers.
- uMatrix – While this may be overkill for many users, this powerful add-on gives you control over requests that may be tracking you on various websites.
- NoScript – This is a script blocker that allows you to control which scripts run on the sites you visit.
Worth mentioning: Don’t use a browser-based password manager, which will store your usernames and passwords in plaintext, thereby leaving them vulnerable to exploitation (discussed more below).
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Using a good VPN (virtual private network) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect your privacy, secure your devices, and also access blocked/censored content online. While VPNs are gaining popularity, there are a number of problematic free VPN apps that collect user data, as well as VPN scams and various marketing gimmicks.
VPNs can range in price from $2.99 per month (NordVPN) all the way up to $6.67 per month (ExpressVPN), and in some cases even more, such as with Perfect Privacy. When you purchase a VPN subscription you will be able to use the VPN on various operating systems and devices, from computers and tablets to phones and routers.
Below are some of the latest recommendations from the best VPN service report, based on extensive testing and research:
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Keep in mind, the “best VPN” will likely vary for each person depending on your own unique needs and circumstances.
Advertisement, tracking, and malware blocker
A good ad blocker is essential for privacy and security reasons. From a privacy perspective, it’s important to block ads because they also function as tracking by recording your online activity to create an intimate user profile, which is used for targeted ads. Ads are also risky from a security perspective because they are often malicious and can infect your device when a web page loads – no clicks required.
Effectively blocking all ads is the only way to go. Here are a few different options from the ad blocker guide:
- Browser ad blocker extensions – Browser-based ad blocker extensions, such as uBlock Origin are quite popular, but they also come with some tradeoffs. Online ads may still be using up resources and tracking you, even if the ads are not being displayed. Choose your ad blocker carefully – some ad blockers, such as Ghostery and Adblock Plus will collect user data for profit and/or show you “approved” ads.
- Ad blocker apps – A dedicated app will most likely do a very good job blocking ads on your device. One popular and well-regarded option is AdGuard.
- VPN ad blocker – Another option is to use a VPN that offers an ad blocking feature (VPN ad blocker). I tested various options for the VPN ad blocker guide and found Perfect Privacy to perform the best.
- Ad blocking on a router – Ad blocking on a router can be accomplished various ways – from using ad blocking DNS to loading custom filter lists onto your router.
- Pi-hole – Pi-hole is a network-wide ad blocker that functions as a DNS server and can be deployed in various ways. It is most often used on a Raspberry Pi, connected to your home router (but there are many other different setup options).
The best ad blocking setup will depend on your situation and needs. If you have numerous devices you use at home, setting up a network-wide ad blocker would be a good solution for blanket protection. uBlock Origin remains a popular option for browser-based ad blockers. I find Perfect Privacy’s TrackStop filters to also work well.
The topic of passwords is actually quite large, encompassing password strength, password management, and password storage. In this section we’ll focus on password management and storage. Many people store passwords in the web browser, but this is risky because your passwords could be hacked by third parties, since they are stored in cleartext. Instead, you would be better off using a dedicated password manager.
Best password managers:
- KeePass – KeePass is a free, open source password manager that stores all passwords locally, which are secured with a master key or key file. I like KeePass because it can still be used with different browsers through official extensions or plugins, and it works will with Firefox (see Kee).
- LessPass – LessPass is also a free and open source password manager that generates unique and secure passwords for you. LessPass can be used through browser extensions, see their site for more details.
- Bitwarden – Bitwarden is another great open source password manager that is secure and easy to use. Bitwarden supports all major operating systems and browsers.
Secure messaging apps
Secure messaging apps are a great alternative to email, which has numerous inherent flaws and vulnerabilities. The secure messaging apps below utilize very strong encryption standards and work well for teams or individual use on various operating systems and devices.
Private search engine
The big search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing) record and track your searches, which helps them to build a user profile for their advertising partners. Consider these alternatives instead:
- Searx – A very privacy-friendly and versatile metasearch engine.
- Qwant – A private search engine based in France.
- DuckDuckGo – This is a great privacy-friendly Google alternative that doesn’t utilize tracking or targeted ads. They also have a zero-sharing policy with other features, but they do record search terms.
- StartPage – StartPage gives you Google search results, but without the tracking.
- Metager – A private search engine based in Germany.
Insecure email providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and iCloud are all bad options when it comes to privacy and security. You regularly read about these providers and their users getting hacked, giving third parties access to emails, and/or cooperating with surveillance authorities (PRISM program). Here are some alternative secure email providers:
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(Free 1 week trial)
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Secure/encrypted router (with a VPN)
If you’re looking for a relatively simple way to secure your entire home network and all devices, a VPN on a router is an excellent option. A good VPN router will:
- extend the benefits of a VPN to all your devices without installing software
- protect you against mass surveillance and internet service provider (ISP) spying
- secure your home network against attacks, hacking, and spying
- unlock the entire internet, allowing you to get around geographic restrictions, blocks, and censorship
The only brand that currently offers a large selection VPN-enabled routers is Asus. The default Asus firmware, which is called ASUSWRT, supports OpenVPN, PPTP, and L2TP, right out of the box (no flashing required).
When choosing a router, the biggest consideration is processing power (CPU). Running a VPN on a router is a very CPU-intensive task requiring the router to process lots of encrypted data. For these reasons, it’s typically good to go with a router that’s at least 800 Mhz or more.
For an in-depth overview of all the different VPN router options, see this VPN router guide.
I have also put together three different setup guides using the AsusWRT firmware with different VPN providers:
- VPN Router Setup – Simple Guide (with VPN.ac)
- Ad Blocker on a Router with a VPN (with Perfect Privacy)
- VPN on a Router – Step by Step (with VyprVPN)
Firewall and Network Monitor
Using a third-party firewall and network monitor is a good way to see what connections are being made by various apps in the background on your operating system. These apps can affect your privacy when they “phone home” to send third parties various data from your operating system. With Windows and Mac OS, for example, there are many applications that are connecting to various servers and sending data.
Here are a few good options worth considering:
Little Snitch – Similar to GlassWire, Little Snitch also gives you the ability to monitor all connections going through your Firewall. Little Snitch is only available for Mac OS, but it provides many different features and blocking options. It also has a feature to show you the geographic location different apps are connecting to. Check out Little Snitch here.
GlassWire – GlassWire describes itself as a “network monitor & security tool with a built in firewall.” GlassWire offers a free Android app and a paid Windows app. The GlassWire Android app is purely a network monitor with no blocking features. However, the Windows app offers more features and full blocking capability.
Consider using the free and open source Linux operating system. There are many different versions of the Linux operating system designed for different types of users:
- If you want the look and feel of Mac OS or Windows, check out Elementary OS.
- Ubuntu and Mint are two other popular options.
Tails is another privacy-focused operating system that can be run live on a USB drive, CD, or SD card.
Problems with Windows and Mac OS
Windows – The latest version of Windows (Windows 10) is a platform built for total surveillance – giving corporations and governments complete access to everything you do on your machine. The basic problem is that the operating system is entirely built on data collection.
Mac OS – While Apple may be slightly better in terms of privacy, it too has many problems. Just like Microsoft, Apple has configured its operating systems to collect vast amounts of your private data, whether it is browsing history through Safari, connection data, location services, and more.
While not necessarily a “privacy” tool, using good antivirus software is a necessary and critical step. After all, privacy is meaningless without security. The problem, however, is that many antivirus solutions abuse your privacy and may come with some invasive and “unwanted” additions.
Just like with sketchy free VPN services, free antivirus software is also problematic. In testing eight popular free antivirus suites, Emsisoft discovered that seven of them were bundled with PUPs (potentially unwanted programs), which can be harmful and very annoying. Tip: avoid free antivirus software!
See also the antivirus privacy guide.
Restore your privacy
That’s all for now, although this guide will continue to be updated with more privacy tools and information.
If you have any feedback, tips, or suggestions based on privacy and security tools you are using, feel free to drop a comment below!