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Start taking back your online privacy by making these 4 easy changes

Here’s how to keep Google, Facebook, and your ISP out of your personal data, with just a few steps.

Start taking back your online privacy by making these 4 easy changes
[Photo: master1305/iStock]

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past few years to not have heard of at least a few of the major data and privacy scandals that show just how reckless some of the biggest tech companies on the planet have been with our data.

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However, these massive violations of user trust and their data have had an upside: More people than ever are aware of a need for increased online privacy. Hell, even the CEOs of the giant tech companies are publicly speaking out about the need for tech companies to be regulated to improve the privacy and security of user data. (Though most of these CEO calls for regulation are them just trying to get in front of where the puck is obviously sliding).

But you shouldn’t wait until regulation is forced upon tech companies to get improved privacy—you should be taking a proactive stance to increase your online privacy right now. When I make this argument to people, their eyes sometimes glaze over, or they say they’re “not a techie” and wouldn’t have the time or knowledge to take the steps required to increase their online privacy.

But that’s just the thing: you don’t need to be a nerd or have unlimited free time to make some of the simplest changes that will greatly protect your private data. It just requires some simple changes to the apps and services you use. Here are four quick changes anyone can make to drastically increase their online privacy:

Instead of: Google Chrome
Use: Brave

If you’re like the majority of people out there, Chrome is your browser of choice. It has many benefits: it’s fast, works well with virtually every website, and offers a massive number of extensions and themes available for you to customize it to your liking.

But the bad thing about Chrome is that it allows Google to suck up even more data about how you browse the web and what you do on it. There are zero reasons to give Google even more data about yourself and your activities.

The most frequent objections I hear to this is that people like all those Chrome extensions Chrome has—some of which are exclusive to Google’s browser. But that extension lock-in is no longer an issue thanks to the Brave web browser. As I’ve written before, if you like Chrome, you’ll love Brave. That’s because Brave looks and works exactly like Chrome and is compatible with every Chrome theme and extension And since Brave is built with privacy in mind, it offers features Google would never allow in Chrome.

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Instead of: Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp
Use: Signal

Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are two of the world’s most popular messaging apps. Both are owned by Facebook, which already has way too much information about us. I know, I know: WhatsApp is encrypted and Facebook supposedly has no way to read our WhatsApp messages. But Facebook does siphon other data about us when we use WhatsApp. For example, when you use WhatsApp, Facebook accesses your contacts, which gives the company information about who you know.

As for Facebook Messenger, those chats aren’t even encrypted by default, and though the company has promised that will change, it has no timetable. Further, even if Facebook isn’t scanning your messages to target ads to you, it can still see who you contact the most and thus get a huge amount of information about your social circle.

You can easily reclaim your messaging privacy by replacing either app (or both of them) with the privacy-focused Signal. As I recently wrote for Fast Company:

But Signal does more than just encrypt your messages. It also hides virtually all of the metadata, including who sent the message. That means only the person who the message is being sent to can see who sent it to them. Signal has no way of telling who is sending you other Signal messages, nor does anyone else who intercepts a Signal message in transit. This is pretty much the most security you could ask for in a messaging app. And only Signal offers it.

As long as the people you want to message with are also on Signal, there’s no reason to keep using messaging apps from a company that has used and abused your data for years.

Instead of: Google
Use: DuckDuckGo

The number-one way Google sucks up data about you is through your search history and the links you click on in the company’s search results. It used to be that Google really was the best search engine out there—its results were more relevant than the rest.

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[Photo: courtesy of Duck Duck Go]
But ask people who have switched to the privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo and they’ll tell you DuckDuckGo’s algorithms have improved to the point where their search results are just as relevant as the ones Google serves, and many times they are identical.

DuckDuckGo does not store personal information about you or your searches, nor does it track you around the web after you’ve left its website. That makes it the best search engine you can use if you value your privacy. It takes all of five seconds to change your default search engine from Google to DuckDuckGo in most browsers, which makes switching the simplest and quickest change you could make to radically increase your online privacy.

Instead of: your ISP’s DNS
Use: 1.1.1.1

Back in 2017, Congress abolished the rules that prevented ISPs from collecting customer traffic data for marketing. This means that not only can your ISP or mobile provider see all the websites you visit, but they can also now use that data to push ads at you, or even sell that data to other firms.

One way to block your ISP from seeing the sites you visit is to use a VPN. However, most good VPNs cost money, and not everyone can afford them (though many will cost you only a few dollars a month). So how can you reclaim some of your privacy from your ISP? Use Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 DNS service. As my colleague Sean Captain explained last year:

The new app, from Cloudflare, is called 1.1.1.1–the name of the internet server it uses. Cloudflare’s main business is as a content delivery network that optimizes the speed of websites using it, as well as shielding them from cyber attacks.

But Cloudflare also operates what’s called a DNS service. This is the lookup service that translates a text web address like “google.com” to the four-part numerical IP address that internet routers use. In this case 172.217.7.196 (actually one of a bunch that Google uses).

Forgoing the default DNS server that your ISP provides and using an alternate one like Cloudflare’s (or others) makes it a lot harder for your ISP to log all the sites you go to. (They have to dig a lot deeper into your web traffic to get the info.)

The good news is changing your DNS doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge. On your Android or iPhone, you don’t even need to mess with the networking settings. Simply download and launch Cloudfare’s 1.1.1.1 app and you’ll instantly keep more of your web-browsing data from your ISP or mobile provider. As for setting up 1.1.1.1 on Macs or PCs, the steps can be found here (MacOS) and here (Windows).

There are many things you can do to keep your online activity private, but the above four steps are the quickest ways to get started. And given that you can accomplish them within a few minutes, is there any reason not to start today?

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