By Scott Hamilton
On May 13, 2020, the U.S. Senate voted to give the federal government more power to spy on our internet habits. During the midst of the largest internet usage in history as we all work from home due to stay at home orders, the U.S. Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act. The privacy-preserving amendment, which was supposed to overturn the Patriot Act, failed by a single vote. The most interesting fact was that the senate chose to vote after several senators who would have voted “Yes” failed to show up to the session. There is little that can be done currently to reverse this act, so I want to give you pointers to protect your online privacy.
Almost every web browser has a “private browsing” mode. You should use it every time you get on the Internet. This mode does not keep your internet provider or the government from monitoring your behavior, but it keeps all records of the browser off your computer.
You might ask, “Why is that important?” There are two main reasons: the first is that in the event information is requested from you, you can safely hand over your computer and there is no record of your internet activity. The second is that it greatly reduces the amount of advertising, as web advertisers use the information in your history to determine ads that are relevant to you.
I don’t want you to think I am providing advice on how to hide illegal activities on the internet. Nothing I am sharing here will provide near enough protection for illegal activities; it is meant entirely to help you protect your privacy. Let’s say for example that you enjoy scientific research and happen to be reading articles on nuclear reactors. This could easily trigger an investigation, especially if at the same time a teenager in your home is researching chemical reactions for science, or you’re shopping for fertilizer for your garden. These can begin to quickly look suspicious. If the law comes knocking and sees no “evidence” on your computers, everything will be dropped. But if they find evidence, you could be looking at a long court case, especially if you insist on a warrant.
So, back to the how. It depends on the browser you are using. My recommendation for the most security is Firefox; it has a private browsing mode, which blocks all history on your computer. It also has the ability to use the “TOR” plugin, which will make you anonymous on the internet. I don’t personally use the “TOR” plugin because it slows the internet down significantly and obscures location information. This makes search much less usable, but provides the ultimate in Internet privacy. To use private browsing in Firefox, you can use the hot-key combination CTRL-SHIFT-N (Windows or Linux) or Command-Shift-N (macOS), which will open an incognito window. This allows you to surf the internet and everything you view, except for any files you choose to download, will disappear when you close the browser.
My second favorite browser from the security standpoint is Google Chrome. The reason it is the second favorite is that the default profile sync in Google Chrome lets Google have access to your browser history, bookmarks and other information for convenient use of the browser. However, none of this works if you exclusively use the incognito mode. So you lose the convenience, but also the trail that can be read without a warrant, thanks to the Patriot Act. To use incognito mode in Chrome, use the same shortcut keys as Firefox CTRL-SHIFT-N or Command-Shift-N.
Finally, there is the default browser in Windows Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge. I don’t really trust Microsoft at all, but really have limited evidence to support my beliefs. To keep yourself safe on their browsers, use the shortcut key (CTRL-SHIFT-P) for “Private Browsing Mode.” This mode is identical to the incognito mode of FireFox and Chrome. It is the best way to make sure there is no record on your computer of your web activity.
Sorry parents, but your kids probably already know how to do this to hide their web activities from you, so now you know how to do it as well. If you want to know what your kids are doing online, place the computer in a central location. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.