Safe Browsing Pt. 3: Other Privacy Tools and VPNs vs. Proxies
Last time on Safe Browsing, we discussed ad blocking and anti-tracking tools for your computers and mobile devices. In this post, we’ll build on your safe browsing practices by exploring other tools and search engines.
Another valuable piece of privacy software designed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation is HTTPS Everywhere, which can be installed as a web browser extension. Whenever you visit a website while browsing the Internet, information is exchanged between your computer and the website’s server. If the information exchange is encrypted by the website, the URL will begin with “https”, and if the information exchange is NOT encrypted, the URL will begin with “http”. Information encryption (HTTPS) means that while certain information, such as your IP address, will be visible, the rest of the information exchanged will not be. For example, if you were to visit Amazon.com on an encrypted connection, the fact that you visited Amazon.com will be visible, but the other information you exchange with the site, such as credit card numbers, search terms, etc. will be encrypted. HTTPS Everywhere forces a website to use the HTTPS version of their site, if it is available. This is an important point: not all websites can be forced to use HTTPS. Thus, HTTPS Everywhere does not work everywhere, all the time, as the name implies. If you only want to visit encrypted websites, you can tell HTTPS Everywhere to “block all unencrypted requests” in the application’s settings. Then, when you try to visit a website and it is blocked by HTTPS Everywhere for not offering encryption, you can decide whether you want to visit that site anyway.
NOTE: If you don’t want to install this application, you can still monitor whether a website is encrypted by checking that the URL begins with “https” in your address bar.
DuckDuckGo (DDG) is a search engine that is a safer alternative to search engines such as Google. As you may already know, search engines like Google collect user data in order to create a “personalized” search experience, which contributes to a problem known as a “filter bubble.” More nefariously, these search engines also collect your data in order to sell it to advertisers, who create another “personalized” browsing experience in the form of targeted ads.
In contrast, DDG doesn’t collect user data in order to create a “personalized” search experience, nor will it sell user data to advertisers because it doesn’t have any to sell! Additionally, DDG automatically directs you toward HTTPS versions of websites, when possible. DDG can be used by way of its web address and as an application, which can be installed as an extension in your web browser so that when you use your address bar to conduct a search, it will default to DDG instead of Google, Bing, et al.
VPN vs. Proxy
The difference between a proxy server and a VPN in simple, but important: encryption. Both VPNs and proxy servers use another server as an IP address intermediary, but VPNs encrypt communications between your computer or device and their server. So, while a proxy will often work just fine for circumventing geo-blocks on services and content, they won’t do much to keep someone from tracking your browsing activity right back to your IP address. As such, we recommend using VPNs over proxies.
There are, however, a couple of important things to note regarding VPNs. First, as stated above, VPNs encrypt communications between your computer or device and their server. However, beyond that, unless there is a secure, encrypted connection between their server and web site (HTTPS), any communications between the website and their server will not be encrypted. This means that, even if you use a VPN, you should still be careful about what kinds of websites you exchange sensitive information with. Second, we don’t advise using free VPN software, as they often derive revenue from collecting and selling your data.
Some popular and well-regarded VPNs are Private Internet Access, PureVPN, and NordVPN. We would advise looking at the features of any VPNs you are interested in using to see which one best fits your needs. In addition, some antivirus software, such as Avast, comes with a VPN, as do some web browsers, like Opera. So, before you go out and buy one, make sure that you don’t already have one and that the one you have suits your needs.
You can also get VPNs for your mobile devices. Most of the VPNs we listed above also have applications for mobile devices, but some ad blocking/anti-tracking applications, such as PhoneGuardian, come with VPNs. So, you may not want to pay for one if you already have one, but, again, the software you pay for will more-often-than-not be superior to free software.
Traffic Ranking Software
Traffic ranking software, such as Similar Web, can assist you in your safe browsing practices by analyzing websites and providing you with details about their traffic. With this information, you can decide whether or not you feel safe exchanging your personal information with a web site. For example, let’s imagine you are looking to buy a computer online, and you come across a vendor on the Internet. You can use traffic ranking software to see how popular that site is. Chances are, if the site ranks high, as newegg does at number 796 globally, it will be safer to do business with than a site that ranks very low globally. Also, if you find that the vendor’s referrals largely come from other reputable sites, you could trust it more than a site whose referrals are either internal or from either unknown or disreputable sites.
Though traffic ranking software can be helpful, it shouldn’t be leaned on too heavily for determining if a site is safe or not. Instead, it can be used as one tool among many to help you decide whether or not a website is safe.
Thanks for reading this installment of Safe Browsing. The next installment will be the last one in the series for a while, and will be dedicated to discussing the Tor web browser.