Merry Christmas! Simple things anyone can do for improved digital hygiene

The holiday season is a great time to talk to loved ones about how we can all improve the ways we use technology and the Internet.

There are many areas of concern around protecting your interests and information online. It gets worse every year; but there are also ever-expanding ways to control what digital fingerprints we leave in various places as we live our lives. (I don’t get into all those details here. For background, I suggest the December 20, 2018 episode of Preet Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned,” in which he interviewed tech journalist Kara Swisher.)

Here are a few things you can share with family and friends to help them increase their online privacy, agency, and safety in an increasingly complex and dangerous information landscape.

Ditch the Chrome browser

Google has been collecting data for a long time. One of the main tools they use is the Chrome browser. Chrome currently accounts for well over half of browser use worldwide. So an easy way to reduce the data that’s collected about you is to switch your browser. I use Firefox and Brave; either one is a good choice. Both have good desktop and mobile versions. Brave, in particular, is built around the idea of blocking unwanted stuff; it more or less takes care of ad blocking (see below).

Block the ads…and the malware

Online advertising, these days, involves complex technology and lots of data. An ad does more than just demand your attention: it’ll collect data from the way you interact with it, or data stored on your computer; and the fact that you’re seeing that specific ad might result from a complex profile of your personality some company is secretly keeping. Much of that same technology also enables nasty stuff like computer viruses and identity theft (as well as useful interactive web pages). Often, it’s hard to draw a clear line between legitimate advertising, nefarious activity, and useful features. So it’s generally best to just block it all, and turn features on only when you specifically trust, and need, a particular site.

If you’re using Brave (see above), and if you’ve taken a few minutes to adjust its blocking features to your liking, you’re probably good on this one. Otherwise, you should make sure you’ve got a decent ad blocker. These are typically browser extensions; you install them within your web browser to extend its capabilities. In Firefox, I use NoScript and Ghostery. These give you a lot of control, but might require more of your attention than you want to give; a more straightforward choice might be Adblock Plus, which I haven’t used in a few years. But be sure you’re doing something to block the ads, and all that other nastiness.

Ditch corporate web search

The price you pay for convenient Google or Bing search is the data you share with the company. One headline that stands out in my memory: “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.” Based on things like lotion purchases. That was in 2012…and tech companies have only gotten more sophisticated since then.

What’s an easy alternative to corporate web search? I recommend setting your desktop browser to use DuckDuckGo as its default search engine. The steps will vary a bit depending what browser you’re using, but there are plenty of easy-to-find guides for how to do this online. Set up DuckDuckGo as your default search engine on your mobile device, too.

Also, consider how you could change your habits. If you know it’s a Wikipedia article you’re looking for, instead of doing a general web search for it, just go to en.wikipedia.org and use its internal search. Same thing with IMDB, the New York Times, or most other websites. That way, you’re sharing fewer of your interests with a search engine.

Sometimes it really is a Google search you want; no biggie. You can always pull Google up if you’re not satisfied with the results from an alternative. Just changing your “go-to” search engine can vastly reduce the amount of data you’re sharing.

Browse in privacy

Keep in mind that “privacy” can mean many different things. A “snooper” could be somebody literally looking over your shoulder, any of various Internet entities tracking your usage, or somebody sharing your computer or your WiFi network. No single technique will keep them all at bay. So whenever you use a product or service for the sake of “privacy,” be sure you’re clear on just what it does, and does not, protect you from.

The Tor browser is a good place to start, though. It will hide your tracks in many scenarios by making you highly anonymous. If you’re using the Brave browser, you can use Tor on occasion without installing anything new; just open a Tor private browsing window.

Use a Linux, or another free/open source operating system

This is a more in-depth change than most of those I’m recommending; but it’s probably not as hard as you think. Even as corporate operating systems like Windows, MacOS, and the Chromebook OS have improved, GNU/Linux and other free and open source operating systems have been quietly getting better, and easier to install and use. These operating systems will generally be much friendlier in how they deal with your data. Personally, I use Ubuntu Mate the most heavily; but there are lots of good “flavors” of Linux out there. You might think about switching your main operating system — or, if you’re not ready to take the plunge, just install a free/open source operating system on an old “backup” computer you might have lying around, to get a feel for it.

If you’re really feeling bold, you might even try installing a free operating system on your Android phone or tablet. Check out LineageOS if you want to give that a try.

Switch up your map app

Google Maps has become pretty ubiquitous. But do you know about OpenStreetMap? It’s sort of like the “Wikipedia of maps.” Volunteers around the world, as well as publicly available data sets, have built a comprehensive map of the world. It’s pretty good! In some cases, its features are less complete than Google Maps; but in some parts of the world, it actually has more complete information. On a mobile device, you can use the official OSMand app; but there are independent apps that rely on the same underlying data, too. Lately, I’ve been using the MAPS.ME app. And yes, once in a while I find myself going back to Google Maps; I keep it around as a backup, for when I don’t find the results I need. While you’re at it, be sure to look through the various location-related settings on your mobile device.

Use a password manager

Have you ever forgotten a password? Or taken risky shortcuts like a yellow sticky note, or storing a password in your browser, to avoid that possibility? It’s time to get past problems like that once and for all. Password managers exist for exactly that reason. I suggest LastPass. Its free version probably does everything you need; but if you like, here’s a recent evaluation of six different password managers. Whichever you pick, take a little time to learn its features, and save all your passwords there. Change any insecure passwords you have (pet’s name, or passwords you’ve used for multiple services.)

Games

I love video games. But they’re something I’ve almost entirely given up. Why? Games contain all kinds of different ways to collect your information and influence your thinking and behavior. So if you or your family members are into online games, take a moment to look into how the games, or the platforms they live on (like Facebook), are collecting your info. You might want to ditch certain games, or start using them on a backup device that you don’t use for more serious activities like online banking.

Think about “fake news” and how you can avoid it

Propaganda and misinformation are a big deal these days. One thing we can all do is make sure we’re not part of the problem. Before you share a surprising news story, take a moment. Are you confident it’s true? Are you confident the headline isn’t misleading? In an era where many of us follow the news, in part, by following our friends, everybody has a part to play.

Get to know the wiki world

Wikipedia is one of the world’s most popular websites. You probably read it on a regular basis. But how well do you understand its inner workings? It’s worth knowing how to investigate the quality of a Wikipedia article. Check out this simple guide, which will help you understand how to browse the history of a Wikipedia article, and things its editors have discussed: Read between the lines: Wikipedia’s inner workings revealed.

Tone down your Facebook usage

You’ve probably read that lots of people are “deleting Facebook.” That’s great if you can do it, but if you’re not ready to take the plunge, there are other steps you can take. I only use Facebook only in the private, or “incognito”, mode in my browser. I never install the Facebook app, or Messenger, on my phone. Perhaps most importantly, I almost never use games or apps built on the Facebook platform. Those steps go a long way to limit the amount of information Facebook or its app partners can collect about me.

Upgrade your text message app

Signal is a mobile app that allows you to send “text messages” securely to other people who use the app. But you can also use it to replace your SMS app. As an open source product, you can be confident it isn’t sneakily sending your data to a corporate database; and texts to and from any friends who are already using it will be extra safe from prying eyes.

Be judicious with online shopping and credit card use

It’s tough to avoid the convenience of online shopping altogether. But are there things you could just as easily buy offline, with cash? Massive retailers like Amazon are in the data business too. Be mindful about how much information you share with them through your shopping activity. Challenge yourself to reduce it.

Home automation

Is standing up to dim the lights really more than you can handle? Do you really need to order toilet paper while you’re sitting on the john? I don’t know about you, but these “problems” aren’t really problems for me. But devices that use my words to feed giant corporate databases…that’s a problem I want to avoid. My advice on this one: just say no. Think about returning that device you got for Christmas for some kind of store credit.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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