We've all been there, a banner ad is served in our browser promoting products on a site we've visited hours, days or months before. It’s as if the ads are following us around from site to site! Most people know that the issue of ad stalking – termed 'remarketing' or 'retargeting' - has something to do with cookies but that’s barely the half of it.

Most people know that the issue of ad stalking – termed 'remarketing' or 'retargeting' - has something to do with cookies but that’s barely the half of it.

The underlying tracking for all this is provided by the search engine provider, be that Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, or one of a number of programmatic ad platforms most people have never heard of. 

The ad system notices which sites people are visiting, choosing an opportune moment to 're-market' products from a site they visited at some point based on how receptive it thinks they will be. The promoted site has paid for this privilege of course.

And unless that cookie is cleared, the user will every now and then be served the same ad for days or weeks on end.

Is this creepy? Only if you don’t understand what is really going on when you use the internet. As far as advertisers are concerned, if the user has a negative feeling about it then the remarketing has probably not worked.

Almost every popular free service, including search engines, social media, cloud storage and webmail, now gathers intrusive amounts of personal data as a fundamental part of its business model. 

User data is simply too valuable to advertisers and profilers not to. The service is free precisely because the user has 'become the product' whose habits and behaviour can be sold on to third parties.

Broadband providers, meanwhile, are increasingly required by governments to store the internet usage history of subscribers for reasons justified by national security and policing.

Here, we look at how we can keep safe online and protect our personal information. 

VPNs

In theory, the traditional way of shielding internet use from ISPs can be achieved using a VPN provider.

A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel from the user’s device and the service provider’s servers which means that any websites visited after that become invisible to the user’s primary ISP. In turn, the user’s IP address is also hidden from those websites.

Notice, however, that the VPN provider can still see which sites are being visited and will also know the user’s ISP IP.

Why are some VPNs free? Good question but one answer is that they can perform precisely the same sort of profiling of user behaviour that the ISP does but for commercial rather than legal reasons. In effect, the user has simply swapped the spying of one company, the ISP, for another, the VPN.

Post-Snowden, a growing number advertise themselves as 'no logging' providers, but how far the user is willing to go in this respect needs to be thought about. Wanting to dodge tracking and profiling is one thing, trying to avoid intelligence services quite another because it assumes that there are no weaknesses in the VPN software or even the underlying encryption that have not been publicly exposed.

Here are a couple we like. See here for a full list of free VPNs or a full list of paid-for VPNs.

Nord VPN

NordVPN's servers operate under the jurisdiction of Panama because, in Panama, internet providers are not obliged to monitor traffic or keep any data logs. 

It has servers in almost 50 countries and provides double data encryption, and an automatic 'kill switch' to protect sensitive information in one click.

Nord really does offer some solid features and is defintnely worthy of your consideration.

IPVanish

IPVanish is a well-regarded US-based service offering an unusually wide range of software clients, including for Windows, Mac and Ubuntu Linux, as well as mobile apps for Android, iOS and Windows Phone. There is also a setup routine for DD-WRT and Tomato for those who use open source router firmware.

Promoted on the back of speed (useful when in a coffee shop) and global reach as well as security. On that topic, it requires no personal data other than for payment and states that it does not collect or log any user traffic.

Cyberghost

Another multi-platform VPN, Romanian-based Cyberghost goes to some lengths to advertise its security features, its main USP. These include multi-protocol support (OpenVPN, IPSec, L2TP and PPTP), DNS leak prevention, IP sharing (essentially subnetting multiple users on one virtual IP) and IPv6 protection. Provisions around 50 servers for UK users. It also says it doesn’t store user data.

PureVPN

PureVPN is based in Hong Kong but will let you connect to over 500 servers across 141 countries via a 256-bit grade encryption. Pretty impressive stuff.

PureVPN is a good choice, offering a 'kill switch' and promising not to log any user activity, along with a simple interface, although, compared to others, this VPN could appear dated and lacking slick customer experiences.

Password managers

1Password

With 1Password you can store a vast amount of information from account details and passwords to bank details and loyalty schemes and what's great is that it will auto fill web forms for you once these are stored.

1Password also enables Touch ID which uses your fingerprint for entry, which adds an extra, and useful layer of security.

In addition, to make sure all your current passwords are up to code, there is an audit function that will highlight weak passwords and generate stronger ones for you to replace them with.

LastPass

If you've been on the hunt for a password manager for a while now, you'll have heard of LastPass, and with good reason. It really is one of the best out there.

Although, that's not to say that it's been smooth sailing. In 2015, LastPass was hacked in 2015, with email addresses, master passwords and hints all breached.

Since this, LastPass really has redeemed itself, offering end-to-end encryption at device level, so even LastPass can't see your passwords.

Here is a full list of the best password managers.

Privacy browsers

All browsers claim to be ‘privacy browsers’ if the services around them are used in specific ways, for example in incognito or privacy mode. As wonderful as Google’s Chrome or Microsoft’s Edge might be their primary purpose, isn't security. The companies that offer them simply have too much to gain from

The companies that offer them simply have too much to gain from a world in which users are tagged, tracked and profiled no matter what their makers say. To Google’s credit, the company doesn’t really hide this fact and does a reasonable job of explaining its privacy settings.

Firefox, by contrast, is by some distance the best of the browser makers simply because it does not depend on the user tracking that helps to fund others. But this becomes moot the minute you log into third-party services, which is why most of the privacy action in the browser space now centres around add-ons.

Epic Privacy Browser

Epic is a Chromium-based browser that takes a minimalistic approach to browsing in order to maximise privacy. It claims that both cookies and trackers are deleted after each session and that all browser searches are proxied through their own servers, meaning that there is no way to connect an IP address to a search. This means your identity is hidden. Epic also provides a fully encrypted connection and users can use its one-button proxying feature that makes quick private browsing easy, although it could slow down your browser.

Tor

This Firefox-based browser that runs on the Tor network can be used with Windows, Mac or Linux PCs. This browser is built on an entire infrastructure of ‘hidden’ relay servers, which means that you can use the internet with your IP and digital identity hidden. Unlike other browsers, Tor is built for privacy only, so it does lack certain security features such as built-in antivirus and anti-malware software.

Dooble

This stripped back Chromium-based browser offers great privacy potential but it may not be the first choice for everyone. Able to run on Windows, Linux and OS X, Dooble offers strict privacy features. It will disable insecure web-based interfaces such as Flash and Javascript, which will make some web pages harder to read. In addition, user content such as bookmarks and browsing history can be encrypted using various passphrases.

See here for a full list of our best secure browsers. 

Privacy search engines

It might seem a bit pointless to worry about a privacy search engine given that this is an inherent quality of the VPN services already discussed but a couple are worth looking out for. The advantage of this approach is that it is free and incredibly simple. Users simply start using a different search engine and aren’t required to buy or install anything.

DuckDuckGo

The best-known example of this is DuckDuckGo. What we like about DuckDuckGo is it protects searches by stopping 'search leakage' by default. This means visited sites will not know what other terms a user searched for and will not be sent a user’s IP address or browser user agent. It also offers an encrypted version that connects to the encrypted versions of major websites, preserving some privacy between the user and the site.

In addition, DuckDuckGo offers a neat password-protected 'cloud save' setting that makes it possible to create search policies and sync these across devices using the search engine.

Oscobo UK search

Launched in late 2015, Oscobo returns UK-specific search results by default (which DuckDuckGo will require a manual setting for). As with DuckDuckGo, the search results are based on Yahoo and Bing although the US outfit also has some of its own spidering. Beyond that, Oscobo does not record IP address or any other user data. According to its founders, no trace of searches made from a computer is left behind. It makes its money from sponsored search returns.

DNS nameservers

Techworld's sister title Computerworld UK recently covered the issue of alternative DNS nameservers, including Norton ConnecSafe, OpenDNS, Comodo Secure DNS, DNS.Watch, VeriSign and, of course, Google.

However, as with any DNS nameserver, there are also privacy concerns because the growing number of free services are really being driven by data gathering. The only way to bypass nameservers completely is to use a VPN provider’s infrastructure. The point of even mentioning them is that using an alternative might be faster than the ISP but come at the expense of less privacy.

DNS.Watch

Available on 84.200.69.80 and 84.200.70.40, DNS.Watch is unique in offering an alternative DNS service without the website logging found on almost every rival. We quote: “We're not interested in shady deals with your data. You own it. We're not a big corporation and don't have to participate in shady deals. We're not running any ad network or anything else where your DNS queries could be of interest for us.”

OpenDNS

Now part of Cisco, the primary is 208.67.220.220 with a backup on 208.67.222.222. Home users can simply adjust their DNS to point at one of the above but OpenDNS also offers the service wrapped up in three further tiers of service, Family Shield, Home, and VIP Home. Each comes with varying levels of filtering and security, parental control and anti-phishing protection.

For a full list of DNS services see here.

Privacy utilities

You might also want to look into some privacy apps and software to support other things in the list. You should consider: 

Two-factor authentication: Given the amount of data users are storing, using two-factor authentication (2FA) is an absolute must. This can be set up using a mobile app such as Google Authenticator, Authy or FreeOTP.

Backup and Sync: You should sync data across multiple devices in an encrypted state, whether that be with Google or other providers such as Dropbox or Box, for example. 

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