Using Google (or any other browser) is pretty much the easiest way to locate relevant information in a timely fashion. So, we all rely heavily on internet searches to help us find what we’re looking for. Since we use search engines almost constantly, it’s safe to assume that there are some searches that we wouldn’t want to share with the world. We’ve all looked up things that we wouldn’t talk about at dinner parties. So, how do you keep those searches private?
Browsers like Chrome and Firefox offer privacy modes. From the user perspective, this seems like a perfect solution. When one’s browser is in this mode, searches and websites aren’t automatically “remembered” by the browser. That said, this privacy isn’t complete. Mozilla Firefox’s Mobile Private Browsing “allows you to browse the internet without saving any information about which sites and pages you’ve visited”. They do a great job of outlining what is and isn’t tracked on their page, found here. A quick look at what is and isn’t tracked reveals that there’s a great deal of information that is still saved and shared, even in privacy mode.
Here are some important points to note:
- If you’re signed into your Google account in a browser, searches can and will be stored in your Google web browsing history. [You can change your Google settings to account for this, but it’s important to be aware of!]
- If you visit a website, even in a private mode, cookies can still be stored on your device, and websites can collect information about your behavior and identity.
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can track your browsing, regardless of whether your browser is in a private mode.
- Your IP address can still be collected.
One of the best solutions for making your mobile searches more anonymous is Tor [Tor project’s website], which was originally developed to protect government communications. This solution is highly recommended by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Without getting too bogged down in the technical details, Tor lets users access information without revealing information about their identity or location by routing their traffic through a network of servers around the world. Journalists, political dissidents, and users living in countries where internet censorship is common use Tor to access programs and content that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise.
- Orbot: Orbot is the Android app that is produced by the Tor project. It allows mobile users to access the web, instant messaging, and email “without being monitored or blocked by their ISPs”.
- IMPORTANT: there have been many reports of a Tor app for iPhone laced with security flaws. You can read about the fake “Tor Browser” here.
- Onion Brower: Created by Mike Tigas, a self-professed privacy enthusiast and journalist at ProPublica, the app allows for internet access over the Tor network, thus protecting users from ISP monitoring. It blocks cookies and content scripts that would allow you to be more easily identified.
- VPNs are another great way to hide information about your location and make you more anonymous on the web. That said, if you’re using a VPN service, they can still maintain logs about your usage history, which could be potentially incriminating.
There are drawbacks to all security solutions; Tor can be slow because your traffic is being routed through a network of computers, and there is the potential for a leak of data between the last server (the “exit” server) and the website you are reaching, as this transmission isn’t encrypted unless the receiving website operates securely with https:// at the beginning of the URL. Protecting all of your information, on a mobile device, PC, or Mac, requires that you identify what different types of information are being exploited and take steps to prevent the leaking of those different types of discrete data – an example being your mobile contacts vs. search history, which require different solutions for protecting each type of information [in this case, you could manage your apps permissions to protect your contacts from being taken by apps that don’t need them, such as Angry Birds, and using Tor to protect your browsing info].
We’ve now shared some awesome ways to send more secure texts, make encrypted phone calls, control app permissions, and protect your browsing habits. We hope that you’ll take the opportunity to be a bit more secure in your day-to-day mobile use!