The U.S. Congress recently made it legal for your ISP (Internet Service Provider) to track and sell information about what you do online. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep secure your email and maintain your web browsing privacy.
Keep in mind it’s not just ISPs who track and sell information about your online activities. There are a number of advertising networks that use ads to track what web sites you visit and build a profile of your likes and dislikes. Fortunately, blocking ISP tracking will inhibit this invasion of privacy, as well.
The good news for iPhone and iPad users is that these iOS devices are easy to secure using the steps below. But it’s still up to you to control just how much of what you do online gets tracked.
Change Your DNS
This first technique might come across as a little technical but it’s actually quite easy to implement. And changing the DNS (Domain Name Server) will go a long way toward protecting your privacy by preventing your ISP from tracking you.
A DNS server changes the ordinary names we humans use for websites–like TabletPCReview.com–into the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses that our computers use–like 126.96.36.199. When you’re connected to your ISP, by default you are using their DNS server, so tracking every website you visit is a snap.
Fortunately, changing to a different DNS server is simple. Go to Settings > Wi-Fi and notice which wireless access point your iPhone or iPad is connected to. It’s easy: there’s a blue check mark beside the one you want. Now, tap on the blue i with a circle around it that appears just to the right of that access point. This will bring up a settings, most of which we’ll ignore. Change the one labeled DNS to 188.8.131.52 with no spaces around it.
And that’s all it takes to switch from your internet service provider’s DNS server–which could be tracking you–to one provided by OpenDNS, which promises “We take our users’ privacy is very seriously. No information will be shared with outside parties.”
Google stores the terms you search for to build a database of your interests. Fortunately, there’s DuckDuckGo, a search engine that promises “What you search for is your own business. We don’t collect any personal information and therefore have none to share.”
Apple makes it a breeze to make this your default search engine. Just go to Settings > Safari > Search Engine, and select DuckDuckGo. For more standard use, just bookmark DuckDuckGo.com.
Secure Your Email
Google, Yahoo!, and similar free services scan every email sent or received through them, and use that information for the profiles it builds on its users. There’s simply no way to use these services and maintain your privacy.
But there are a number of companies that do offer secure messaging. The best known of these is Hushmail, which encrypts the contents of your emails and provides secure connections to their servers. Accounts are accessible through an iOS email application, through the standard email apps, or through the Web.
Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc. aren’t really free, as your information is being sold to advertisers to cover the costs of the service. Hushmail and similar services aren’t ad supported, so you have to pay for them in the traditional way. A personal Hushmail account is $49.98 a year, for example.
Install a VPN
The most serious way to keep your ISP or advertisers from tracking you is with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This blocks Comcast, Verizon, etc. from knowing what you are doing, and also prevents Google’s ad network from building a profile on you.
But there are trade-offs. The most obvious is that the company that runs the VPN can potentially also track you. Still, using one means that you can start with the ISP that provides the best service and/or price, and then choose a VPN company that adds the best privacy.
Another trade-off from using a VPN is that Internet access is often just a bit slower, as all traffic is being routed through remote servers, sometimes located in another country. Also, keep in mind that using a VPN can interfere with some of Apple services, including Siri and AirDrop.
The absolute easiest option is Opera VPN, which just requires a quick installation from the Apple App Store, followed by an extremely simple setup. The VPN service is provided by SurfEasy, an Opera subsidiary, which promises that it doesn’t store users originating IP addresses, nor does it retain information about the applications, services, or websites users consume while connected.
Those who want to choose an alternative VPN should do research to confirm that the company that provides it has a strong commitment to privacy. And people should also be aware that most reputable VPNs charge for the service.
Also, be aware that these won’t be apps like Opera’s offering, but rather a set of instructions on how to configure Safari to use the VPN. The process won’t be too complicated, though.
In hopes of saving people some time, many budget/free VPNs use the PPTP protocol (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol). This method is obsolete and so insecure that iOS doesn’t support it any longer.
Block Ad Tracking
Those who don’t like the drawbacks of a VPN have simpler alternatives, but these aren’t as effective.
The Safari browser has a Do Not Track option, available at Settings > Safari > Privacy & Security. This is something of an honor system, though, as it simply sends advertisers a request to not follow you. Unethical companies can choose to ignore this.
Blocking “cookies” is another option offered by Safari. Completely barring them will cause many websites to malfunction though. This browser offers an interim setting, in which cookies are only accepted from websites you actually visit. This will prevent some advertisers from tracking you.
The nuclear option is an ad blocker. These interfere with the social contract between websites and users though, and aren’t really necessary, as the iPhone and iPad offer many other options to keep corporations from peering over your shoulder.
Apple’s Safari web browser has a Private Mode, in which Safari doesn’t remember the pages you visit or your AutoFill information. The browser won’t store your search terms, but Google will. In addition, Do Not Track is also turned on.
In this mode, Safari accepts cookies because, as previously mentioned, many web sites require them for normal functioning. However, a return to regular browsing will cause any new cookies to be deleted. Safari in Private Mode can access cookies previously created during regular browsing, but won’t save changes made to these during a private session. Still, these cookies can be used by unethical advertising networks to track you during the session.
To enable this more secure mode, tap the multitab button at the top of the Safari screen, which brings up thumbnails of all open webpages. A button labeled “Private” will appear at the upper right; tapping on that clears the screen of non-private tabs, turns the background black, and sets the application so that any web pages that are opened are kept private.
It’s unfortunate that we have reached the point where we have to actively block corporations from spying on us. Even people who accept that the websites they love are free only because the costs of running them are defrayed by ads should feel uncomfortable about having an advertising network track everything they do on the Web.
The Internet has become a trade-off between privacy and convenience. Preventing companies from tracking you requires a bit of hassle, and the more hoops you are willing to jump through, the more you can protect your privacy. But even just a little bit of effort can make the job harder for the companies that want to invade your privacy for their financial gain.