How to . . . tighten up your online privacy

From VPNs to OpenDNS, here are a few tips to keep your internet habits a little more private

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock


There has been a lot of talk about online privacy and tracking of internet activity lately. In the US, privacy protections for internet users were rolled back in a controversial move, and while that may not affect Irish users directly, it’s always good to consider your privacy options.

So with that in mind, here are a few tips to try to tighten up your online privacy.

Go incognito:

The most commonly used browsers began offering the option for private browsing a few years ago. Chrome calls it Incognito mode, Safari uses Private mode, but essentially, they do the same thing: they won’t store cookies or a list of the pages you have visited on your computer, tablet or smartphone. But this has limited value. While it won’t store cookies, the browser’s privacy mode will only really stop other people from spying on your internet activity by looking at your device. It won’t hide your IP address from advertisers, or your identity from servers of websites that you visit. However, it is the most easily implemented, and a good first step.

Perhaps more useful is the Do Not Track option. Turning this on - usually found under Settings - will send a request to a website not to track your browsing data. However, not all websites will abide by it, and may still track your data. So don’t depend on it too heavily.

Privacy protection:

You can block your internet activity from being tracked to a certain extent by installing a browser extension which will block cookies and ads from websites that don’t implement Do Not Track requests. Privacy Badger, for example, will essentially hide you from advertisers and use a handy colour coded aid to show you exactly what it’s doing.

Of course, adblocking technology has its own drawbacks, and some websites may require you to switch extensions such as Privacy Badger off before you can access free content.

Use a VPN

A virtual private network has its advantages. Not only does it give a certain amount of anonymity when it comes to your internet habits, but it can also be used to change your geographical location. That is not only good for people fighting against being tracked - whether it’s by advertisers or something a little more sinister - but it also means you’ll be able to get around those pesky geographic locks that mean you can’t access content because you’re in a particular country. There has been some crackdown on this though, with both BBC iPlayer and Netflix making a concerted effort to boot the VPNs off their service.

There are free VPNs out there supported by advertising, or ones that give you a limited amount of use, such as Tunnelbear, but if you plan on streaming video or doing any heavy use, you’ll be better off signing up for a paid monthly service.

But beware: not all VPNs are created equal. Some VPN providers can still sell on your internet activity to third parties.

Use third party DNS services

When getting online, most of us use the default domain name system servers our internet service providers set up for us. The domain name system is essentially how the easy to remember web address you type into the address bar on your browser is matched up with the unique numerical IP address that identifies a website.

If you use the default ISP servers, all your internet traffic goes through these servers and consequently, can be tracked by your ISP. But it can be more secure and certainly more private if you use a different DNS service. It can also speed things up for you a little.

One option to consider is OpenDNS; Google also offers its own Public DNS service.

Use Tor

Have you ever heard of Tor? It stands for The Onion Router and what it does is cover your tracks online by routing your internet connection through a number of different locations worldwide. Instead of your internet traffic going directly from your computer or tablet to the server, Tor will bounce your connection through several locations to create a more difficult to follow path.

It doesn’t guarantee full anonymity online, but it will make it a little more difficult to build a picture of your internet activity.

You can use a Tor browser or hardware to connect to the internet and make yourself harder to track. For more information, see Tor Project.