This is just one step in a series created to help people improve their online security regardless of their technical knowledge. For more information, see our complete Simple Online Security series.

When you search for information online, it tends to leave breadcrumbs that can lead back to you. This can include everything from your computer’s IP address to the history in your web browser, which can lead to annoying advertisements or someone happening upon your browsing history.

It’s difficult to fully cloak everything you do online, and going to privacy extremes makes using the internet unbearable. But you can take some precautions to make it more difficult to link searches back to you. The precautions you decide to take are dependent on what you need and who you’re protecting those searches from.

You want to hide searches from advertisers, tech companies, your housemates, and the like

  • Incognito or private browser modes are useful for browsing without storing your history (and that’s it): Most browsers have some sort of private mode, but despite the name, they don’t work the way you might think. While every browser handles these modes a little differently, the primary benefit of them is singular: They do not save your browsing history on the device you’re using. Otherwise, everything you do can still be tracked by ad companies and any accounts you log in to (like a Google or Facebook account).
  • Don’t log in to accounts: No privacy tool can protect against what a company does on its own site. So if you need to search for something privately, don’t log in to any accounts for social networks, web stores, banks, or anything else (and log out if you haven’t already).
  • Use a privacy-focused search engine: Google collects a lot of data about what you search for on Google, and even when you’re not logged in to a Google account, you might leave other possibly-identifying footprints. Instead, use a more privacy-focused search engine, like DuckDuckGo, Startpage, or Brave Search.
  • Disable your mobile ad ID on your smartphone and block ads on your desktop browser: Smartphone apps tend to collect loads of data about your behavior, but you can at least cut off the primary means the apps have of identifying you, your mobile ad ID. We have directions to disable this number on both Android and iPhone. Likewise, on a desktop browser, you should consider using a tracker or ad blocker, which helps prevent those companies from making profiles about you based on your browsing behavior.
  • Do not chat with others in less secure places: Keep in mind that most of what we do online can be seen by the companies that run the platforms, such as Facebook Messenger (unless you opt into end-to-end encrypted chats). Stick to secure platforms for a chat when you can, and avoid talking about anything you don’t want tracking or handed over to law enforcement on other services.

You want to hide searches from governments

  • Use Tor for highly personal searches: If you need to search for something online and really don’t want it coming back to you, the Tor Browser is your best option. It comes packed with settings that disable tracking, and everything you do in the browser gets run through a variety of privacy-protecting measures that help obscure your identity. The trade-off is that Tor tends to break a lot of websites, making them difficult to read, so it’s not something that’s usable all the time. However, it’s free and good to have installed for any sort of web search that you do not want to be linked back to you.
  • A VPN can be useful, sometimes: A virtual private network (VPN) creates a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and a VPN server. This makes it harder to track you based on certain types of identifiers, like your IP address. In some cases, this can help protect your privacy, especially in any country that censors the internet, but keep in mind that the VPN company always sees your web traffic. Any services you log in to or cookies that the site stores can still be used to track you. The VPN industry is unregulated and tends to lack transparency, making it hard to suss out exactly what these companies collect. We only recommend a couple of VPN options because the companies commit to transparency with third-party audits, but nothing is foolproof or perfect. For pure anonymity, stick with the Tor Browser. For more information about circumventing censorship, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide.

[Source: This article was published in By Thorin Klosowski – Uploaded by the Member of Broadreader]