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The Step-by-Step guide to getting back your digital freedom (and therefore your privacy online)

Peter Harpending
Draft: 21 March 2015

Hey, everyone!

First of all, what is “digital freedom”? Well, it’s the basic idea that you should be able to do as you please with your software, your electronic devices, and online. I imagine most people reading this are doing so because they want to get back their digital privacy. I have some news for you: the only way to get back your digital privacy is to get back your digital freedom.

The path to digital freedom will involve some changes in the way you use your electronics, and the way you conduct yourself online. You might not like some of these changes at first. In fact, I’m almost sure you’ll dislike at least 10% of what I tell you to do. I promise, though, it’s all worth it in the end.

There are three steps here:

  1. You are going to quit giving away your information on the internet.

    This involves closing your accounts on things like Facebook, Google, and Tinder. These companies are notorious for selling your confidential information in the interest of making money. They also happily hand your data over to the NSA.

    You can keep your accounts on services that respect your freedom, such as Reddit and Twitter. You’re only going to delete your accounts on services that purposefully violate your freedom.

    In many cases, the alternative services I recommend do cost money. However: the software I recommend in step 2 does not cost money, unlike the software you are likely currently using. Even though you will probably be paying more for online services, you will no longer be paying for software, so you’ll actually save money.

  2. You are going to quit using software on your computer that violates your digital freedom.

    This is software that tries to control how you use it. Very often, this is the same software that the NSA controls, or some large company controls. Instead, you will control how your computer works. It’s quite liberating.

    In this process, you’ll also make your computer less vulnerable to viruses and hackers.

  3. You are going to quit buying material items that violate your digital freedom.

    This includes: proprietary game consoles with cameras, Blu-ray disks, anything made by Apple,

    You don’t have to get rid of your current items, this is just for future reference. I will show you how to salvage what’s left of your freedom on your current items.

These three steps are ranked in order of importance. You should go through with them all. However, gun to your head, the first one is the most important.

With regard to privacy:

It’s unfortunate, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

What I mean by that is, if you want privacy, you can’t use services like Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, or Tinder. These companies’ only path to profit is through violating your privacy.

In most cases, there are alternative services that perform the same function, while still managing to respect your privacy, and work just as well. I’ll show you how to migrate to these (and, more importantly, how to convince your friends to migrate).

For instance, a lot of people use Twitter. Twitter actually respects your privacy, so it’s okay to keep your Twitter account.1 Reddit is also okay.

Even if you don’t care about your own privacy, you certainly have friends and/or family members that do. In the interest of being considerate, you should obtain your digital privacy to protect others who want theirs.

Even if you are super careful, and don’t share anything about your privacy-seeking friends, data about you is used to target those people who prefer to keep their lives private.2 It’s incredibly unethical, but it is entirely legal. You probably just clicked “Agree” instead of reading the 1200 page document of Terms & Conditions.

You may not even realize that you are subject to this mistreatment; you may just think it’s business as usual. I’m going to show you exactly what this mistreatment is, and how to escape it.

Step 1: Control your online presence

Alright, now that the introduction is out of the way, let’s get started! This is step 1. It’s the easiest, quickest, and most important step. Here’s a quick outline of what we’re going to do here:

  1. You are going to switch over to Mozilla Firefox, and configure it to maximize your privacy

    This involves:

    1. Migrating your data over from another browser
    2. Enabling the do-not-track feature.
    3. Considering whether or not you want to enable synchronization, and whether or not to use a master password.
    4. Installing a number of add-ons:

      1. AdBlock Edge
      2. BetterPrivacy
      3. Disconnect
      4. Disconnect Search
      5. Flashblock
      6. HTTPS-Everywhere
      7. NoScript (optional, but recommended)

      Important: Do not install the Ghostery add-on in Firefox. Despite being supposedly designed to protect your privacy, it is proprietary, so it is a security risk.

  2. You are going to delete your Google+ and Facebook accounts. Also Pinterest, Instagram, Tinder, Snapchat.

    These companies purposefully violate your privacy. It is, however, okay to keep:

    1. Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo Mail: There are better options for email — which I will show you — but it’s okay to keep these for backwards compatibility.

    2. Twitter: Twitter is known to vigorously defend your privacy. However, if you post tweets: because of a fundamental flaw in its design, Twitter is not ideal. Identi.ca or GNU Social are much better options.

    3. Reddit: Unlike social networking sites like Facebook or Google+, Reddit isn’t intrinsically a threat to your privacy. You can use Reddit without divulging any information about yourself

Step 1.1: Fix your web browser.

According to Wikipedia, anywhere between 80–90% of internet users use browsers that don’t respect their freedom. Here is a list of good and bad browsers:

Good Bad Ugly
Firefox Chrome Jumanji
IceCat Chromium Midori
Tor Browser Bundle (TBB) Internet Explorer QuteBrowser
Opera QupZilla
Safari Uzbl
Xombrero

The “ugly” column is for browsers that are technically okay, but are not optimal (nor are they, in most cases, very pleasant to use).

Of the three “good” browsers, I recommend Firefox, with some extended configuration, which I will document below.

IceCat and TBB are both actually much better than what I recommend, as far as digital freedom and digital privacy go.

However:

Migrating over to Firefox

If you currently use one of the browsers in the “bad” column, you’ll want to read Mozilla’s guide to migrating your data over to Firefox

Configuring Firefox to maximize your privacy

At this point you’ve installed Firefox on your machine, and migrated your data over to Firefox. In this step, we’re going to configure Firefox in such a manner that it maximizes your privacy.

First things first, let’s go into Firefox’s internal settings. Click the triple bar icon in the top right corner:

Then, you’ll want to click the “Preferences” button:

A window will pop up, which probably looks something like this:

Enable your web browser’s do-not-track feature:

Next, we’re going to enable some of Firefox’s security settings:

Make sure to check all of those boxes except for the last one, which is “Use a master password”.

You are more than welcome to use a master password. It’s a good idea. The master password encrypts your data. So, even if you use Firefox’s sync feature (which I will show you in a minute), you are the only person who can access it. Even if Mozilla gave your data over to the NSA, the NSA wouldn’t be able to do anything with it.

However, if you forget your master password, then your data is lost forever. Not even the NSA can break this encryption.

Conclusion

If you have any comments, questions, concerns, what-have-you, or want to suggest a change to this document, please see the git repository.


  1. However, due to some fundamental flaws with Twitter’s design, it’s far from optimal. Identi.ca is a better option than Twitter. Twitter is okay, though.

  2. This practice is more commonly known as “social networking”.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.