Most people who think about internet privacy and security worry about “catching” a virus, or accidentally revealing information they consider personal or dangerous, such as their bank account number. What they don’t realize is how much “digital exhaust” they leave behind when browsing the web. For example, their preferences on all sorts of products, their political and religious beliefs, the shape of their family, and… well, just about anything.
You (probably) cannot eliminate all of your digital exhaust. You might not even want to because it is sometimes useful if people know what you might be looking for. But you can at least minimize it.
The place to begin, however, is with a simple rule of thumb: if a system is convenient, you are probably trading your information for that convenience. If you want to reduce your digital exhaust, you will need to do things that are a little less convenient. Only you can decide if the tradeoff between convenience and revealing personal information is worth it.
One place to begin is with your browser habits. You are probably using one browser for everything today — either Edge or Safari, because they are installed by default, or Chrome because some web sites demand that you install Chrome before they will work correctly. Web sites, by the way, should not be designed to work with only one browser — but let’s talk about that another day.
Instead of using one browser, try this: install multiple browsers, each with its own security posture. For now, I want to talk about four browsers that I keep installed on my computer all the time, each configured with a range of options from “produces the smallest amount of digital exhaust” (the quietest) to “leaves lots of digital exhaust” (the noisiest). Let’s look at each, from the quietest to the noisiest.
- My quietest browser is Brave. This browser comes “out of the box” with ad-blocking enabled, tracking turned off, and many other features that reduce the ability to companies to track users while on their web sites. I do not have any extensions installed in this browser nor do I modify its configuration much. There is a reason for that. It is often possible to identify users just by examining the extensions they have installed in their browsers. Yes, even installing extensions can leave digital exhaust.
- The second quietest browser I have installed is Opera. On this browser, I have the ad blocker enabled, as well as Privacy Badger, which tracks and blocks some trackers. I also have the SimpleClear extension installed, and I click on the button each time I close the browser. Further, I have Opera configured to automatically delete all tracking states whenever I exit the browser. I do have a few extensions running on this browser, such as Zotero, which I use for collecting references for research work.
The other two browsers installed on my computer are Edge and Chrome. I have no extensions installed in Edge, and just a few in Chrome (mostly the User Agent Switcher, which makes web sites think I am using a browser other than Chrome — sometimes this can be quite useful). I have two additional browsers installed on my computer, but I will leave these last two for another article.
My usual browsing habits can be described as 1) forage from moderate safety, 2) clean up, and 3) close down when I’m done. I read most of the “news” (such as it is) through an RSS reader. Because I only subscribe to sources I already know about, I open all these links in Opera. If I run into a link that will not open properly because of the ad blocker, or because it will only open correctly in Chrome, I must consider the importance of this particular bit of information in my life. If it is really important, then I will manually copy the URL from Opera and paste it into Edge or Chrome to open the site.
I never unblock sites in my adblocker, because unblocking is forever. If promised information does not sound really important, I just skip it and move on to the next bit of information. Forcing myself to manually copy and paste the URL between browsers makes me think about how important visiting a site really is anyway.
What happens if I receive an email with a link to a web site? If it is from a business I know, I manually navigate to the business’ web site—I do not click on the link in an email, ever. If the link is from a friend, or from a business I do not know, and I think I really need to visit that link, I copy the URL and paste it into Brave. From this point, I never enter usernames or passwords of any kind. I only enter usernames and passwords onto a web page when I have typed the URL into the browser, or my password manager has automatically entered it—never when redirected from another link, or when clicking on a link received in an email.
You cannot eliminate the trail of data exhaust you leave while using the web—but, following an approach like this, you can reduce the amount somewhat. And refusing to feed the data collectors might be the best thing you can do to reduce the scope and power of the surveillance capitalists of the world today.
More suggestions from Russ White for greater data privacy and security:
Escaping the news filter bubble: Three simple tips Spoiler: Reduce the amount of information big providers have about YOU
Are you trapped in a news bubble? Russ White: The news filtered to you might leave out important things you need to know. But how can you tell? Before we talk about how to get out of the news filter bubble, we need to look at how it actually works.
Pop-ups? Just say no, and close those tabs! Making the internet work for YOU means, among other things, getting control of who can follow you around. If allowing these notifications sounds like a perfect avenue for an attacker, that’s because it is. This attack surface is a very large hole in the security of your computer.
Should you pay for a virtual private network (VPN)? Here’s what a VPN can and can’t do for you. In some cases, specifically when you are using public wireless services, using a VPN can add measurably to your privacy and security. But VPNs are not a “silver bullet” in solving the many security and privacy issues users face today.
The internet’s structure builds in privacy flaws. The Domain Name resolver knows every service you visit, and every service those services rely on, as you move around the internet
You think you have nothing to hide? Then why are Big Tech moguls making billions from what you and others tell them?