protect yourself and win back control of your data with these 5 free online privacy tools

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Malware. Email hacks. Ransomware. It seems like there’s a new digital scam every week — enough of them to make you want to turn your devices off and hide from the world.

What is the biggest threat to online privacy?

The biggest threat to online privacy is likely the collection and misuse of personal data by companies and organizations. This can include companies tracking users’ browsing and search histories, as well as the collection of personal information such as email addresses, phone numbers, and location data. Additionally, the increasing use of surveillance technology and the rise of government surveillance programs also pose a significant threat to online privacy.

Data leaks are big news these days. Your search history, search results, online accounts, and sensitive data are all subject to data collection — so you should look for strong encryption standards, data privacy, and ease of use, however you need to be careful. The dark web exploits https everywhere. Multi-factor authentication is no longer the exception, it’s the norm. The days of “password123” are over. Today’s internet landscape is the wild west. Complex passwords, two-factor authentication, ad blocker tools, antivirus software, a proxy server, private search engines, tor browser, a privacy browser extension. The list goes on and on.

But staying secure online doesn’t have to be difficult (or even expensive). Good guys are out there too, working on the best privacy tools that can keep you safe and secure from internet users as you browse.

Many of these tools have advanced to the point that they beat their paid counterparts. For example, you probably don’t need a paid antivirus suite like in the Windows XP days. Windows 10 and 11 have a built-in security program called Windows Defender that does the job.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the free tools available to protect your digital life. Here are 5 of our favorites.

Tool 1: The settings in your web browser

That’s right, you can enhance your online privacy without having to download and install anything new. The average internet user can adjust a few settings in a matter of minutes to optimize a secure browser.

Whether you use your operating system’s default browser (Microsoft Edge or Mac Safari) or a third-party one (Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome), there are security settings you can tweak for better security. Two of the key ones to look out for are called Enhanced Protection (or Enhanced Tracking Protection) and HTTPS-by-default.

Here’s a web browser cheat sheet to help you choose the one that’s best for you:

Google Chrome pros and cons:

Pros: Chrome is fast, stable and has a great selection of extensions. It also syncs well with other Google services, such as Gmail and Google Drive.
Cons: Chrome is a memory hog, which can slow down older computers, and it has been known to track users’ browsing history for targeted advertising.

Mozilla Firefox pros and cons:

Pros: Firefox is an open-source browser, which means it’s more customizable and secure than some other browsers. It also uses less memory than Chrome.
Cons: Firefox’s extension library is not as extensive as Chrome’s and it may be less responsive on some websites.

Microsoft Edge pros and cons:

Pros: Edge is fast and lightweight browser that has been rebuilt using Chromium, the same engine that powers Chrome. Edge also includes some unique features such as the Reading View, a note-taking tool, and an Internet Explorer mode for legacy websites.
Cons: Edge is relatively new and has a smaller user base, so there may be fewer extensions available.

Safari pros and cons:

Pros: Safari is the default browser on Apple devices and is optimized for Macs, iPads, and iPhones. It also integrates well with other Apple services, such as iCloud and Apple Pay.
Cons: Safari is less customizable than other browsers and has a smaller selection of extensions.

Opera pros and cons:

Pros: Opera is a browser that uses less system resources and has a built-in VPN. It also includes a battery saver mode and a built-in ad-blocker.
Cons: Opera’s extension library is not as extensive as Chrome or Firefox, and it may be less responsive on some websites.

It’s important to note that the best browser for you will depend on your specific needs and preferences. Chrome, Firefox, and Edge are considered the most popular browsers, and all have their own set of pros and cons.

No matter which browser you pick, consider turning on the setting called Enhanced Protection. This feature will automatically alert you of scams, prevent webpage elements like social share buttons, and block certain trackers. Google claims that Chrome users who turn this feature on get phished 35% less.

HTTPS-by-default is even more straightforward, forcing webpages to load using a secure connection. If none is available, you’ll see a splash screen warning and get asked whether you want to proceed.

Tool 2: Privacy Badger

Privacy Badger is a tracker blocker like Ghostery, Disconnect, or Blur. These are all good options that will help to enhance your online privacy. So why do we like Privacy Badger best of all?

The reason is that Privacy Badger is developed and maintained by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF exists to advocate for better online privacy, so you can be confident that Privacy Badger won’t harvest or sell your data.

The tool — available as an extension for every major browser — is extremely lightweight. It analyzes your web traffic to ID trackers that follow you across websites, then blocks them. The more sites you visit, the more trackers Privacy Badger will ID and block.

Nixing trackers doesn’t just make your browsing more private. A tool like Privacy Badger may also help you conserve data and even speed up webpages.

Tool 3: Privacy Not Included

You may know Mozilla as the developer of the Firefox browser. The organization, a nonprofit like the EFF, also runs a program called Privacy Not Included to rate and review apps and devices on how well they protect user privacy.

Web browsing, after all, is just one of the ways your data traverses the internet. The apps on your phone send and receive data even when you don’t have them open. “Smart” devices like doorbells, running watches, and toys may do the same thing.

Privacy Not Included covers all of these product categories, scoring products on the basis of “creepiness.” What makes the program useful is that Mozilla really does their homework on everything they review. For example, when looking at iRobot vacuums, they hired an independent security consultant to see exactly what data gets transmitted back to iRobot’s corporate parent, Amazon.

(Good news if you’re an iRobot customer: the product scored well for privacy protection.)

If digital privacy is a concern for you, it’s worth searching your apps and smart devices on Privacy Not Included — and supporting the companies that take privacy seriously.

Tool 4: DuckDuckGo search

Websites, apps, and connected devices aren’t the only places your personal information is threatened. Search engines like Google and Bing have tons of data on you as well: a big problem that DuckDuckGo aims to tackle.

Search is the first place most of us go to learn new things, find products, or discover what’s around us. But none of this search activity is really private. Search engines save all of your searches — and not just for their own commercial purposes. They will hand your search data over to law enforcement when requested.

DuckDuckGo was founded in 2008 to offer a better way forward. Unlike Google, Bing, or Yahoo, DuckDuckGo doesn’t collect IP addresses or user-agent data. That means your searches on the site are truly anonymous.

The company is so committed to privacy that it doesn’t even know how many people use its search engine.

“We simply don’t store anything that can tie searches to you personally,” DuckDuckGo explains.

DuckDuckGo looks and works like any other search engine — and provides the same high-quality results. It even has an (anonymized) Apple Maps integration to map what’s around you.

Tool 5: illumy

We didn’t build illumy as a privacy-protection tool. Instead, we built privacy protection into illumy to help you communicate more securely.

First, we can’t see anything you say or share on illumy. illumy chat is encrypted using best-in-class security protocols that are effectively impossible to hack.

Second, we’ll never sell your data to advertisers or brokers. Your personal info, like your registration email, name, and IP address, stay private.

Finally, we give you total control over your illumy contacts. People with whom you rarely communicate only see your display name and username. For closer contacts, you can opt in to sharing your illumy profile by making a connection.

(It’s easy to do — just click the person’s name at the top of your conversation thread and look for the colorful Connect button.)

Even once a connection is made, you’re in control over what gets shared. As you make connections, you select their permission level (Acquaintance, Friend, or Best Friend). Then, within your profile, you can edit which fields are visible to each level.

Bonus (Paid) Tool: A VPN

You may also want to consider a reliable VPN, ideally with a trial free plan and tools to prevent data breaches.

So what is a VPN anyway?

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that allows users to connect to the internet securely and privately providing end-to-end encryption. It does this by creating a secure, encrypted tunnel between the user’s device, the internet connection, and the VPN server. This tunnel is used to transmit all internet traffic, including sensitive information such as login credentials and financial data.

When a user connects to a VPN, their internet traffic is routed through the VPN server rather than their internet service provider (ISP). This makes it appear as if the user is located in the same location as the VPN server, which can be used to access content that is restricted in the user’s country or to improve privacy by hiding their true location.

VPNs are also used to protect users when connected to public Wi-Fi networks, which can be insecure and easy for hackers to access sensitive information.

Overall, VPNs are useful for anyone looking to improve their online security and privacy, as well as for accessing content that is not available in their region.

It’s difficult to determine the best VPNs. It can depend on a user’s specific needs and preferences. However, some popular VPNs are:

– ExpressVPN
– NordVPN
– Surfshark
– CyberGhost
– Private Internet Access (PIA)

These VPNs are known for their fast speeds, strong security features, and wide server networks. It’s always recommended to do your own research and compare different VPNs to find the one that best suits your needs.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

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