Since the advent of smartphones, how we go about our daily lives is recorded every minute and data about our habits and health are collected for commercial uses behind the public's scrutiny. Overtaking the price of oil, data has become the world's most valuable single resource. It is therefore unsurprising why companies are so eager to get their hands on data. However, companies are using increasingly intelligent methods to extract data that could be sensitive without users' consent. For example, the recent revelation of TikTok's data structure raised a few eyebrows as it was exposed that the Chinese social-media giant was regularly reading the copy-and-paste clipboards of users. 

If we were to stop such suspicious data collection, not only should we raise public awareness around this, but we should also adopt measures to protect our own data. Our recent Jargon Buster explained how they track you online, in this edition we show a few ways to prevent websites from collecting your data.

Term

Definition

Privacy-focused Web Search Engines

A search engine is a software system that carries out a search across the internet based on your input keywords.

Google Search, with its market-leading page rank algorithms, is the most popular search engine in the western part of the world. It delivers search results based on the user's previous searches, the most commonly visited websites and location among other factors to find relevant answers. Each search is saved to become part of a user's profile, so that other Google products (hint: Google Ads) could show items specifically relevant to the users. You may have had such a personalised experience, and thanked Google for finding the right information so quickly. However soon you will see that all web suggestions become extremely skewed towards your shopping, political bias, or the preferences of your demographic, leading users to be detached from reality.

Baidu, the most popular search engine in China, is another example of a search engine where all search results are ranked and sanitised according to the user's tendencies together with the Chinese government's filters. There had been a few cases where users once searched controversial terms online and got reprimanded by the local government who somehow got wind of this.

Privacy-focused search engines are alternative search engines that respect user's privacy by not tracking searches and building a user profile. DuckDuckGo, the most prominent privacy search engine, goes further by blocking trackers from Google and third parties so that users are anonymous. For example, when searching for "top holiday destinations", DuckDuckGo will give a football-loving, 14-year-old Brit the same results as a recently married British couple in search of honeymoon ideas. As such, advertisements and search results are focused on the topic the user is searching for, rather than the individual user's hidden likings. While search results may look irrelevant at times when compared with Google search results, users are relatively anonymous and are protected from targeted advertisements and subliminal messages.


Privacy-focused Browsers

Chances are you are reading this blog post on one of the most commonly used web browsers: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge, or Apple Safari. Web browsers are great at delivering content on devices and remembering your web history. However, most are not designed for privacy by default. Have you ever had a look at your web history and browser settings? Even at incognito mode, a web browser sends, receives and stores a lot of data that you may not want to be recorded and stored forever.

Switching to privacy-focused browsers is one way to protect your privacy. Firefox Focus and Brave do so by blocking advertisements, trackers, removing third-party cookies,  blocking malicious scripts and sites. This way, not only is loading much faster, but users also get fewer distractions and do not give away as much data to companies unknowingly. Furthermore, these browsers enable users to configure their settings more easily so that users have more control over their privacy. Most of these browsers are free, open-sourced, and monetise in new interesting ways to get extra cash for maintenance.


Privacy Browser Extensions

If you liked the sound of having the privacy which privacy-focused browsers offer but cannot imagine the prospect of becoming disloyal to your internet browser, privacy browser extensions are ideal. Extensions such as uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, and Ghostery can be installed as an add-on to common browsers to block trackers, scripts that may leach your browser's CPU and data for malicious purposes in addition to advertisements, giving your existing browser the muscles it needs to fight against data-hungry websites.

Adblockers

Adblockers are a subset of privacy browser extensions. Operating in a very similar way, they are installable plugins to your desired browser in order to remove, alter or hide advertising content on any given webpage. Whilst some are designed to purely remove ads or to ensure your precious time is saved by not having to watch that 5-second advert before viewing your favourite music videos, others are more complex. For example, blockers like uBlock go further by blocking widgets which could compromise a user's privacy.

By blocking these widgets, third parties are unable to get their hands on valuable information such as the length of time you spent on a specific page, or how long your cursor was hovering over those new pair of trainers which you were so close to purchasing.


Virtual Private Networks

A virtual private network (VPN) should not be a stranger to many office workers since the Covid-19 lockdown. VPN was initially designed to provide access to corporate applications to remote users using an encrypted tunnelling protocol. Increasingly they can also be used to connect to proxy servers in order to protect personal identity and ensure privacy.

A proxy server acts as a middle-man or a gateway between the user and the internet. By anonymising the end user's address, the website that receives a request would not be able to track users continuously and build a user profile. Consequently, much less information is exposed to the wider internet.

However, it is important to make sure you use a trustworthy VPN  provider since your internet activity goes through a proxy server, which is run by a third party who can see who you are and your traffic.


Let's all make the effort to ensure we protect ourselves when going online. After all, we spend 24 hours a week on average online – that's a lot of data to companies to take and monetise!