How to Use the Internet and Your Phone Securely [Guide for Amateurs]

How to Use the Internet and Your Phone Securely

Protect your privacy online.

Select one of the below options for how to go about doing it. 

You can read about the quick and dirty version of internet privacy, or you can read about the more complicated version.

Quick Privacy Protection Online in 5 Steps

This is the quick and dirty version of how to protect your privacy online.

Read this section if you want basic protection quickly and don’t want to worry about the details.

Step 1: Use an Apple Device

Yup, the first step to protecting your privacy online is to use an iPhone, iPad or Apple computer.

Apple values privacy more than their competitors. They do not harvest your data the way the competition does. (At least they claim they don’t and they haven’t been caught data harvesting yet.)

Contrast this to a desktop using Windows 10: your data is harvested automatically and you have to learn how to turn that off.

So, if you want to be more secure online, use an Apple device. (It does not matter whether it’s a phone, a tablet or laptop/desktop.)

2. Use the Right Browser (Brave, Opera, etc.)

If you are already using an Apple device, chances are you use Safari to browse the internet.

Safari is a better choice than Chrome or Edge in terms of your privacy, but it is far from the best one.

The best normal* browser for your privacy is called Brave. It blocks all trackers (cookies etc) as you surf the internet. Note: your online experience will drastically change if you use Brave.

(*There is a more secure option which I will discuss later but it is for experts only.)

The second best option is something like Opera, which allows trackers but which can easily route your internet traffic through another country, obscuring your location and, to an extent, your identity.

3. Stop Using Gmail/Outlook (Hotmail)

Google gets much of its data from your personal Google account, the most common form of which is Gmail

Don’t worry, they aren’t giving your personal information to anyone. What they’re doing is they are aggregating your behaviour and that of millions of other users to create broad buyer personas for their customers. And much of that comes from Gmail.

Microsoft is probably doing the same thing with Outlook (which has been merged with their old cloud email provider, Hotmail).

You’re better off using an email client which pledges to protect your privacy. There are now numerous options. I go into detail about them below.

4. Stop Using Google/Bing for your Searches

When you use Google for search, they take what you search for an aggregate that. Then they provide that data to their advertisers. (They do not provide your personal information.)

Bing does the same thing if you use Bing.

In order to avoid this, you need to use a search engine like Duck Duck Go, which respects your privacy.

Some of the browsers suggested above will default to a better search engine.

5. Stop Using Social Media

If you really don’t want your behaviour tracked and your data harvested, stop using social media.

If that is too extreme for you, then stop using your social media accounts to login to other websites and always log out of your social accounts when you want to do anything else online.

Alternatively, you can use one browser for social media and another browser for everything else. This way you will be sure not to let social media track you while you use the rest of the internet.

You can see how inconvenient this is getting.

And that’s the thing: privacy is all about inconvenience, for the tech companies and for you. If you want to protect your privacy online, you have to accept more inconvenience in your life.

The rest of this guide will go over in detail how to balance privacy and convenience as best as you can.

Minimal Privacy Protection

If you want some privacy online, but you don’t want to be so inconvenienced, you perform the steps listed above and operate somewhat normally.

Let’s go through them in more detail:

Choose the Right Device

If you are an Apple user, you can skip this step. Apple’s devices are safer, broadly speaking, when it comes to privacy.

If you do not use Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac) or you use some Apple devices and some non-Apple devices (Android phone, Chromebook, Windows laptop or desktop) then you need to do more.

Specifically, you have to learn how to change your settings to limit data capture.

Turn Off Tracking in Windows 10

This is a multi-step process:

  1. Search “Settings” next to the Start Menu.
  2. Click on Privacy at the bottom right. Or search “Privacy” in the search bar at the top.

This gets you to the point where you can adjust your various privacy settings.

First, click on “General” and turn everything “Off” under “General”:

  • “Let apps use advertising…”
  • “Let websites provide locally relevant…”
  • “Let Windows track app launches…”
  • “Show me suggeste content…”

For your location settings, do the following:

  1. Click on “Location” under “App permissions or search “Location” in the “Find a setting” search bar in the top left.
  2. Click on the “Change” button under “Allow access to location on this device”
    Click the On switch to turn location tracking off.

Restricting Camera and Microphone access is a little more tricky, as most of us require these for Zoom and the like.

You might also want to turn off “Inking & typing personalization”.

Limit Tracking with Android

1. Open the Settings app on your Android and look for either the “Connections” tab or, depending on your phone, the “Privacy” tab.

2. Tap “Location” and toggle the switch to off.

3. You can also tap “Emergency Location Service” and “Google Location Sharing” to switch off location-tracking features there as well.

Use the Right Email Provider

Most of the email clients provided by big tech companies harvest your data.

  • Gmail
  • Outlook (Hotmail)
  • Yahoo Mail

If you want privacy, don’t use one of these.

You can use a desktop email client like Thunderbird to access thoese services, which will make things a little better.

But, ideally, you want a cloud email service which offers privacy. 

See this recent list of best secure email providers.

Use the Right Browser

In addition to using the right device (or controlling your device’s privacy settings), and using the right email provider, you must also choose your browser wisely.

If you care about privacy, don’t use Chrome.

Specifically, don’t use any browser to which you are signed in (Chrome, Edge). What happens here is that your behaviour is more identifiable as you, rather than someone else using your device.

Please note that if you sign into any websites and don’t sign out, most of what follows about browser safety is moot. Signing in is giving permission to be tracked.

Brave the Browser

The fastest way you can stop much tracking when you surf the web is by installing and using Brave.

Brave is built in Chrome but defaults to blocking all tracking requests.

Note: your online experience will be very different if you do this. Consider it close to the nuclear option – your searches are going to suck now, and there will be no personalization from any websites you aren’t logged into.

Opera the Browser (or equivalents)

If you don’t want to block all tracking, the next best thing you can do is route your traffic through somewhere else. Opera has a built-in VPN – i.e. Virtual Proxy Network, those things the TV ads are trying to sell you to protect your security. And it’s free.

What this does is confuse trackers: your traffic is coming from Ukraine (or somewhere) but your behaviour is that of someone in urban North America.

Firefox or Just Being Careful About Your Settings

If you want a browser that functions fairly similarly to what you’re used to, but does a pretty good job of restricting some tracking, use Firefox.

Yes, Firefox still exists. Firefox has a pay VPN as an option and, broadly speaking, respects your privacy more than Chrome or Edge.

For less privacy and more convenience, you can also just change the settings on Chrome or Edge but do know that this is the least effective way of limiting tracking and, moreoever, it’s more work than using Firefox or Opera.

Use the Right Search Engine

If you don’t want to be tracked on the internet, stop using Google (or, um, Bing).

I can’t say this enough: stop using Google. If you’re actually mad about your personal data being harvested and turned into money for Big Tech, one of the companies you should boycott is Google.

Google uses your searches to sell ads and much more more.

Duck Duck Go

The most famous search engine which doesn’t track you is Duck Duck Go.

Note: your experience of using a search engine which isn’t aggregating your choices into a massive pool of data is going to be different. Actually, it’s going to suck.

The price of privacy is less convenience. That’s because the cost of all this convenience was our privacy.

Stop Using Social Media*

Listen, I know this is hard to hear. But if you really want to limit your exposure you should quit social media.

Don’t want to quit social media?

Okay, we can work with that. Instead, do the following:

Don't Use Social Media to Sign In Elsewhere

I know it’s convenient, but if you really want to limit how much the social meida companies know about you, don’t use your profiles to login to anywhere else.

Don’t login with Facebook or Twitter.

Yes, you will have a whole bunch of different logins, but that will make your behaviour more private.

Always Sign Out of Social Before Doing Anything Else. Or, Better Yet, Use a Special Browser for Your Social Accounts.

When you leave Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, actually leave them. Log out.

Alternatively, open a separate browser window and login to your social accounts there, and then switch to the other browser when you want to use your email, or search for something.

Use the Internet with (Near) Total Privacy

So, the above isn’t good enough for you, eh?

Okay then. This section will explain how you can make everything really secure.

Get a Specific Device or Sandbox for Using the Internet

If you really want to take this seriously, the first thing you need to do is to take the drastic step of dedicating only one device for use online.

Is that a bridge too far?

Well, the alternative is to install what’s known as a “sandbox” on all your devices you plan to use to access the internet.

A sandbox allows you to isolate the programs you use on the internet from the rest of your computer.

Sanboxie is a good choice.

Use a Cloud-Based Private Email Service

If you really want to secure yourself you should use a private email service based in the cloud whose own employees cannot access your email without destroying it. Yes, this is something that exists.

Browse Only with TOR

Perhaps you’ve heard of TOR (aka The Onion Router). It’s the most secure internet browser out there because your traffic is routed through many anonymous computers.

If You Must Use Social Media...

  • Use it only on one sandboxed device (i.e. a device you never connect to any other devices you own)
  • Access social media with TOR
  • ALWAYS log out.

How Internet Privacy All Works

This last part of this article is about what exactly you are giving up when you use the internet. I left it to here because I want to put the pratical stuff first.

Your Internet Service Provider is Not the Problem

A lot of people assume that it’s their Internet Service Provider (ISP) that is the real issue here.

I’ve heard people worry that their ISP spies on their behaviour. I’ve heard others worry that their ISP might have to give their data to law enforcement. And many if not most of us have received a Cease and Desist letter from our ISP telling us to stop downloading copyrighted media.

But, though your ISP could indeed spy on you, and ISPs have indeed been pressured to give up user data, they are far from the most common abuser of personal privacy.

Merchants are (Usually) Not the Problem

A lot of older people are scared of using their credit cards online due to a fear of identity theft.

And, yes, sometimes identity theft happens.

And occasionally it is because a website got hacked and it was storing credit card data.

But most reputable websites use third party merchants to handle credit card transactions. You’re not actually giving your credit card to the store.

Now, if the merchant is hacked, then, yes, your credit card infrmation is compromised. And this does happen.

However, most successful identity theft comes from phishing and social engineering, not credit card process hacks.

Again, merchants are not the major problem.

Legacy Email is Not the Problem

If you’re one of those people who use an ISP-provided email account, you don’t have to worry that much either.

These things were not designed to harvest data.

The Real Problem: Big Tech, Search Engines, Websites and Social Media

Here are the culprits:

  • the search engines (Google in particular)
  • free cloud-based email services
  • social meida
  • free apps.

In short, the problem is the “content for free” model of the internet.

(Nearly) Every time you get something for free on the internet (an article, a podcast, a video, a game, an app), you should ask yourself what you are actually paying for it with.

More often than not, you’re actually paying for this “free” content or this “free” tool with your personal information.

That’s how this works: you give up your personal information (without realizing it) and you get something for “free”.

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