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Take Control of Your Internet Privacy with These Apps

Virtual private networks, the Tor network, and more.

Apps in this Guide

Your user data -- which websites you visit and when, where you click on a webpage, and how long you stay on it -- is a product that people can sell. It's valuable information for advertisers, productmore

Your user data -- which websites you visit and when, where you click on a webpage, and how long you stay on it -- is a product that people can sell. It's valuable information for advertisers, product developers, and sometimes government agencies. When handled responsibly, this info does not identify you personally, but you don't always have this advantage. If you believe that you have a right to privacy, we know the tools you can use to make the fools obey the rules.

The features of the best privacy tools

Transparency: These tools tell you exactly how they behave, with a minimum of marketing spin. The company that makes them has a publicly listed street address, contact info, and preferably names its key personnel and describes their positions. A software maker that doesn't tell you who they are and where they are is difficult to hold accountable or to get tech support from.

The Tor Project is a good example. While the organization is a loose confederation of volunteers, it still produces detailed financial reports and lists all of its sponsors.

Ease of use: Tools that do complex things to help secure your privacy don't have to be complex to use. WhatsApp for PC is a great example of simplicity; you just scan a QR code with your phone to verify your identity.

The safety and private of these tools

Your privacy and anonymity online are only as secure as your activities let them be. It doesn't matter how locked down your web browser is if you use it to log in to Facebook or Gmail. At the same time, the more secure you need your online environment to be, the fewer services you will have access to, like a Google search or an Amazon shopping cart.

You can try to strike a balance between privacy and utility, or you could dedicate a single device to private activity. Keeping in mind that your privacy is never 100 percent guaranteed, depending on how badly someone wants to find you and what resources they have to do it.

Recommended Internet Privacy Tools

Tor Browser

Tor Browser

This browser is based on Firefox and bounces your connection to the Internet around a network that masks your point of origin when you come out the other side to reach your desired website. The owner of that website will not be able to tell where your connection is actually coming from. This pipeline also has strong encryption, so your Internet service provider can't see where you're going, either. They can only see that you're connecting to the Tor network. At the same time, the browser's privacy is easy to use. It happens automatically every time you open it.

There are two kinds of virtual private networks (VPNs). One is the kind your employer may use so that you can access internal work resources when you are away from the office. The other kind is for personal use, to create an encrypted tunnel between you and your online destination that people in between can't snoop on or track. When you use a VPN at home, your Internet service provider can't see what websites you're visiting or what you're doing on them. They only see your connection to the VPN server.

It can be difficult to find a trustworthy-looking personal VPN service. NordVPN ticks pretty much all of the important boxes. Its sales pitch doesn't promote legally dicey stuff like downloading torrents or watching region-specific versions of Netflix. It doesn't overstate how much your privacy and security are increased by a VPN. Its prices are reasonable, but not so cheap that it looks like corners are being cut.

NordVPN provides a long list of VPN servers that you can connect to, and your connection is consistently fast enough to at least stream an HD video. Its software is easy for a non-technical person to use but still has additional options for more advanced users. The privacy policy is written in plain English. You can pay with Bitcoin. Developers don't keep logs of user activities. The only information stored are your email address and your payment info.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox

Runner-up for best private web browser: Firefox. Desktop Firefox doesn't connect to the Tor network, but it gets points for being open-source and less restrictive than Google Chrome about certain add-ons. Open-source means that the software's programming code is publicly available for anyone to inspect, verify, and use to make their own copy of the program. Google has been reluctant to embrace extensions that can download embedded videos, particularly on YouTube. Its reasons are understandable (Google owns YouTube), but it allows Firefox users more privacy, since they can download pretty much any video and watch offline or on another device.

iVPN

iVPN

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Runner-up for best VPN: iVPN. iVPN is also a great service, with documentation on its website that's very illuminating about digital privacy, security, and anonymity. It ticks almost all of the boxes that NordVPN does, except for the price. However, if you pay annually, it works out to $8.33 a month, roughly the price of a deli sandwich.