Google last week announced that it would combine data from all of a user’s activities across all its products, like Gmail, Calendar and YouTube, to provide a "better" online experience. If you lead a double life of any kind — something as simple as wanting to keep your business and personal accounts separate — the change could be hard to swallow.
One way Google and most other websites track where you go online is by installing little bits of code called cookies. That’s why you see ads from a site you visited. Your computer isn’t clairvoyant: it’s tracking you and sending the information back to the companies who placed the cookies when you opened a page on their site. You can disable cookies in your Web browser, but many sites — including Google — won’t work without them. And your IP address (which identifies your computer) is still recorded. That’s why privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say it’s safer to use other services. Here are two options for other online services — one for beginners and a second for users who want to go a bit further:
Popping your search bubble
Using Duck Duck Go lets users "pop" their search bubbles and get unfiltered results, he said.
Some people might prefer an even more secure service. Tor, short for "the onion router" is named after its layered security like the layers of an onion. It generates a random path to send information from your computer to its destination. Each step along the path further obscures identifying information such as your computer’s IP address.
By default, Tor blocks all ads and redirects users to Duck Duck Go when a search term is typed into Google.
It’s not just for hacktivists or people living in censored countries such as Tibet, Syria and Egypt. Ordinary families who don’t want their kids to inadvertently reveal their whereabouts use Tor. According to Tor’s website, a rural lawyer in New England uses it to write an anonymous blog because he believes the political beliefs expressed on his site may offend some clients.
Tor is free downloadable software that works only with Mozilla’s Firefox browser, but it is compatible with both Windows and Mac computers. A mobile version for Android phones is available, and Tor for iPhones and iPads is in the works.
Tor can safeguard online activities such as browsing, instant messaging, blogging and Internet phone calls. However, your browsing experience will be limited. For security reasons, Tor blocks all plugins, including Adobe Flash and the newer HTML5 video technology, so watching video is off-limits. You can temporarily disable the block by clicking the "no scripts" snake icon, but you do so at the risk of revealing your identity. You won’t be able to tweet a story on Twitter or share to Facebook. Why? Because with Tor, sites don’t recognize you. You are anonymous.
Whether you decide to leave your online activities open to analysis or choose to use the Internet in private some or all of the time, it’s good to know you have options.