When it comes to digital privacy, the internet as a whole has been on a downward spiral for years. Today, most websites and apps serve you increasingly personalized ads and generally track your every move, even across different web properties!
Visit any new consumer product website right now and for weeks you’ll see its ads through Facebook and Google’s ad network. A few years ago, Google went as far as showing you ads against the content in your Gmail, but had to drop the practice after a significant public pushback.
So how did we get here? Is there a chance for a private search or private browsing in the future? And how can you use anonymous browsing to escape constant tracking? Let’s find out.
How Are You Being Tracked Right Now?
At any time online, you’re tracked on three different levels. First, your activity is monitored by your ISP (internet service provider) since they run your default DNS resolver — a server that converts URLs into IP addresses. ISPs and local governments worldwide often collaborate to block certain online activity at the DNS level.
Second, you’re monitored by the websites you visit when they put a cookie (a small text file) into your browser’s preferences. Initially, cookies were a way to determine whether you’ve visited the website before (e.g. for you to stay logged in). More recently, they’ve been frequently used to track your activity for advertising purposes.
Third, major tech advertising companies, like Google and Facebook, encourage you to sign into their services and then follow you through all their properties online: Like buttons in the case of Facebook and Google search in the case of Google.
All this means that taking back some of your privacy matters more than ever before. Good news is you have quite a few options for doing so and, once you set them up, they won’t alter your browsing habits in any significant way.
Embrace private browsing
The most common way in which people try to get some privacy is via the anonymous web browser feature, also commonly called an incognito mode. There are, however, a few misconceptions about what private browsing can or can’t do for you.
Anonymous browsing is good for when you don’t want to save cookies from various websites on your browser past a single session — so when you close the browser window, all that information gets deleted. But does incognito hide your IP address? No, websites will still be able to tell where you’re logging from and even identify you through various fingerprinting techniques.
What’s fingerprinting? Essentially every computer (or mobile device) is different in some way, whether it’s screen size, operating system, language preference, or other specific settings. When you visit a website with trackers, they can read all of this information and compose your unique profile even without placing a cookie in your browser.
Still, anonymous browsing is a good basic defense measure against carrying cookies from every website you visit. So make sure to use it when you don’t want websites to remember you.
Here’s how to turn on private browsing on Safari:
Go to File ➙ New Private Window (Shift + ⌘ + N)
Most other browsers allow you to enable anonymous browsing similarly. You’d use the same (Shift + ⌘ + N) shortcut for Google Chrome and a slightly different one for Firefox (Shift + ⌘ + P).
Block trackers and ads
The next step in protecting your privacy online should be finding the best way to protect yourself against invasive trackers and ads. While most of us would agree that trackers aren’t doing us any good, some argue that ads are important — especially for media websites — and it might be true. However, most ads you see today also contain invasive trackers in them and slow down your website loading considerably. It’s not uncommon to find 20-plus ad networks and trackers on a single website these days. So you need a way to solve that.
AdGuard is an all-in-one solution for taking your privacy back. It lives quietly in your menu bar and works with any browser right from the get-go, be it Safari, Firefox, or Chrome. Once enabled, AdGuard finds and blocks any trackers from the websites you visit, disables ads, neutralizes threats, and sometimes saves you hundreds of megabytes per session (great when you’re tethering data from your phone).
Using AdGuard is as simple as turning it on once and forgetting about it while continuing to reap the rewards of the faster web forever.
Arm yourself with a VPN
By getting rid of cookies, ads, and trackers, you’re well on your way to a much better web experience. But if you want to improve your privacy even further you can do so by changing your default ISP DNS resolver, which would prevent your ISP from monitoring the websites you visit and selling your data to advertisers.
There are quite a few privacy-first DNS resolvers out there today. You generally want to pick one that’s big enough to have servers in your area to reduce latency. We can recommend 22.214.171.124 from Cloudflare.
To change your default DNS server:
Launch System Preferences
Go to Network ➙ Advanced… ➙ DNS
Click the minus (-) icon to delete the default value
Click the plus (+) icon to add the following addresses: 126.96.36.199 then 188.8.131.52 then 2606:4700:4700::1111 and finally 2606:4700:4700::1001
Hit OK and then Apply
With a DNS resolver covered, you still have your IP address exposed for anyone to see. To fix that, you need to use a VPN (virtual private network), which would essentially send your request to a third-party server first and only then hit the intended website, thus obscuring your origins. Besides, when you’re connected to a VPN, your traffic is encrypted all the way from your computer to the server, additionally protecting you from being spied on public WiFi networks.
Shimo is one of the most versatile Mac VPN clients out there. Using industry-level AES 256-bit encryption, it offers a variety of VPN protocols and multiple simultaneous connections. The app is also easy to use and allows you to set automated triggers for when you want your VPN to be activated. Now you know that security doesn’t have to be complicated.
Opt for private search
Nearly all of us visit Google by default, without even thinking about it. We even use “google” as a generalized verb for online search overall. No wonder — Google is really good at figuring out what we need to find. It does so, however, by collecting vast amounts of information on our habits and our search history. Luckily, there are other, more privacy-focused alternatives.
You can, for example, switch your searches to DuckDuckGo, which in most cases outputs results just as good as Google’s but without collecting any personalized information about you. As a result, DuckDuckGo’s search results are the same for everyone and help you escape the filter bubble.
Use an anonymous web browser
In addition to all of the above, if you strive to achieve complete anonymity online, you can switch to the Tor browser.
Tor is a completely anonymous network that encrypts, isolates and disguises your traffic, so that website won’t know who you are besides the fact that you’re using Tor.
If you think Tor is a bit too complicated for you, you can continue to use your favorite browser in private browsing mode without much worry. But make sure to remove any unnecessary plugins too. Adobe Flash, for example, has been previously linked to revealing IP addresses. Another thing you can do is prevent cross-site tracking in Safari, so that cookies wouldn’t be able to follow you across the web:
Launch Safari ➙ Preferences… (⌘ + ,)
Navigate to the Privacy tab and check “Prevent cross-site tracking”
As you can see, winning back your privacy is not that difficult. Just switch to anonymous browsing, install AdGuard to block ads and trackers, reconfigure your DNS, arm yourself with Shimo VPN, use DuckDuckGo for your online searches and maybe switch to Tor.
Best of all, you can get AdGuard and Shimo absolutely free for seven days via a trial of Setapp, a platform with more than 200 essential Mac apps that cover anything from adding your cloud storage as local hard drives (CloudMounter) to using Instagram on Mac (Grids). Try all these apps and more today at no cost and see how much more productive you can be!