According to a 2019 survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans are “more alarmed than ever” about their online privacy. This concern is well deserved, as it seems every day there’s another story about shady corporate data collection policies or a major data breach.
So, how can you protect yourself? Luckily, you don’t have to live off the grid without electricity while hoarding military surplus MREs from the Cold War to prevent total surveillance. While most of the Big Tech offerings don’t make user privacy a top priority, some alternatives do. Here, we’ll look into the common ways you can stay private online.
The most popular web browser, by far, is Google Chrome. Unfortunately, it’s also the worst for privacy. In fact, you may notice a running theme throughout this guide; stop using Google! Google is one of the top privacy offenders, and its suite of software and services is absolutely massive, so you probably use them frequently. Safer ways to surf the web include the following solutions.
Firefox. Developed by the non-profit Mozilla corporation, Firefox provides a wealth of privacy settings. However, many of these options are not on by default, so you will want to dig into them a bit to set things up how you want.
Safari. This is the standard web browser for iOS and macOS. As far as Big Tech companies go, Apple stands out as being better about privacy than the others, which holds true for its browser. Again, you will need to optimize the settings for privacy, but the interface is clear and intuitive. Apple makes its money from high-priced hardware, so it has less incentive to collect and sell as much data as possible.
Brave. Brave is a newcomer to the browser game, and it has made its name on protecting privacy. It blocks ads, trackers, scripts, and more. It offers high-performance compared to its competition too! However, there are two caveats; It serves you ads by default (although you get paid for viewing them and you can disable them), and it’s built off of the Chromium browser, which uses the same code base as the nefarious Chrome. On the plus side, this does make it compatible with popular Chrome extensions, so it really boils down to your risk-reward calculations.
Stop using Google! Just don’t. Now, for some searches, Google will likely return better results. But for the vast majority of occasions, one of the following alternatives will get the job done without tracking your every move.
DuckDuckGo. This is easily the most usable privacy search engine. It has most of the same features (Videos/Images/News/etc.) as Google, and they never track your behavior. It doesn’t employ invasive algorithms either; it parses search results via a simple traffic calculation, so you also don’t get the censorship prevalent on Google.
For most users, DuckDuckGo is going to be the way to go. Other privacy search engines are significantly more niche, but we’ll still cover a few of the more interesting ones.
Ecosia. This is a front-end for the Bing search engine, but it ditches the trackers associated with Microsoft’s product. So, you get the power of Bing without the drawbacks. One of the more novel aspects of this solution is that the Ecosia organization plants trees when you use it. Of course, to fund this, you have to deal with ads, but at least you’re not being surveilled.
SearX. This is a very interesting option that’s completely decentralized. In fact, you can set up your own instance of the search engine to help out with the project! It has helpful advanced search capabilities that can assist with finding particular files. Unfortunately, it’s also the least user-friendly (you have to click on an instance before searching) and can be buggy. Still, it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for if the team can iron out the kinks.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)
One of the easiest ways to hide your location and identifying information when online is to invest in a VPN. They’re starting to become mainstream, as you’ve probably heard advertisements for them on your favorite podcast or YouTube channel.
With a VPN, you’re using a service that masks your network’s IP address. So, trackers online think the computer is in a completely different part of the world. Another benefit is the data sent between your computer and websites is encrypted and unreadable to would-be snoops. We recommend everyone use a VPN if they want to remain private on the internet. Many VPN providers are available, and we encourage you to do your own research about which is suitable for you. A quick DuckDuckGo search should put you on the correct path (see what we did there?)
Android vs. iOS
As we previously detailed, Apple is generally better with privacy. Android, a Google product, is pretty hopeless out of the box, but if you’re a tech whiz, it can be improved. If you need to get an Android phone for compatibility or price reasons, we recommend getting one you can install custom ROMs on and download a third-party privacy-based operating system. This isn’t for the everyday user and only works on specific phone models. The most popular privacy ROMs are LineageOS, CalyxOS, and GrapheneOS.
The first two attempt to replicate the functionality of Android while maintaining a semblance of privacy. GrapheneOS, on the other hand, goes much further and is recommended by people such as Edward Snowden. Be warned, while this will provide the most privacy possible, many people will be put off by the learning curve and lack of features/common applications.
There aren’t many non-Android or iOS alternatives. You could try out the Linux-based PINEPHONE, which offers a pared-down Linux experience and physical switches that can turn off the cellular radios, microphones, and more. It’s an inexpensive way to get robust privacy, but again, you will experience tradeoffs in usability.
One more privacy tip regarding your cellphones; don’t go with the major carriers. They will undoubtedly run credit checks and require all of your personal information when you sign up. Avoid these invasions by going with prepaid services. With these, you typically don’t have to give up any personal data if you don’t want to, and you can buy refills with cash at a variety of retail stores. They also tend to be significantly less expensive overall, and you’re also not locked into a burdensome contract. Furthermore, they all use the same networks that the big names do. It’s a no-brainer!
Alternative methods of payment
One of the worst feelings is seeing unaccounted-for charges on your credit card statements. It’s a hassle to reverse, and you may be without the stolen funds for days or weeks before it gets sorted out. It’s a situation that seems all too common in modern times, and most people accept it as a necessary hazard when putting your credit card information online. This doesn’t have to be the case!
You can protect your banking information by using payment services that provide users with masked credit card numbers. Companies like Abine Blur let you load up prepaid virtual cards that can be used anywhere (even for booking hotels). For privacy-conscious people, it allows the peace of mind that’s so sought after when making online purchases.
Social media is tough to replace. The first recommendation we have is not to use Facebook. For businesses and those wanting to keep in touch with friends, this is a tricky proposition. If you don’t absolutely need it, however, do not use it. If you must, only put the bare minimum amount of personal information on it. There have been multiple scandals and instances of Zuckerberg’s company selling user data and behavior analysis to third parties without consent. This goes for its popular acquisitions, too, such as Instagram and WhatsApp.
As far as other platforms go, we recommend:
Invidious. This is a YouTube front-end that doesn’t track your behavior. It has other great features, such as the ability to download videos in various formats/qualities. Invidious also blocks all advertisements, and you can listen to the audio when the screen is turned off, making it fantastic for podcasts.
Like SearX for search engines, you have to use a specific instance, and we recommend www.yewtu.be, which doesn’t have much downtime. With this instance, you can even create an account not linked to your identity where you can maintain subscriptions to your favorite content creators. It’s the best way to enjoy YouTube.
Mastodon. Mastodon is a Twitter replacement that’s fully decentralized. It’s an open-source project that is entirely un-monetized. So, you’ll never see advertisements or promoted posts, and there’s no incentive to collect data since it won’t be sold. Of course, the community isn’t as large as Twitter’s, but it is growing steadily and is engaging enough to try out.
Messing apps are an important way to talk to friends and family without using insecure SMS text messages. However, if you’re using Big Tech solutions like Facebook Messenger, GChat, or even the end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), your communications aren’t necessarily private. If you want a more secure messaging app, use open-source, encrypted options like Telegram and Signal.
Sending and storing files via the cloud is a convenient way to have all your documents at your fingertips. However, if you use common programs like Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive, your content is also at the greedy fingertips of Big Tech. Prevent corporate surveillance and data mining by using the decentralized, distributed AXEL Go.
AXEL Go combines secure blockchain technology, the InterPlanetary File System, and hardened military-grade encryption to provide the best privacy platform for sharing and storing your data. Sign up today and receive a free 14-day trial of our Premium service with all features unlocked.
The privacy revolution
As you can see, protecting your digital privacy isn’t impossible. You may have to make concessions or change your daily workflow a bit, but with the growing community around privacy-based software and services, you can stay out of the watchful gaze of Big Tech while still enjoying the utility of the internet. We hope you give some of our suggestions a shot and see that the current reality of corporate surveillance and censorship doesn’t have to carry on into the future.
With your help, we can usher in a new era of the internet that delivers on its initial promise of expanding human interaction and knowledge without privacy issues. Join the privacy revolution. Change the world.
 Statista, “Share of internet users who are more alarmed than ever about their online privacy vs. their willingness to accept certain risks to their online privacy to make their life more convenient as of December 2019, by country”, Statista.com, Dec. 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1023952/global-opinion-concern-internet-privacy-risk-convenience/
 Statista, “Market share held by leading desktop internet browsers in the United States from January 2015 to March 2021”, Statista.com, March 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/272697/market-share-desktop-internet-browser-usa/