Chances are that you already heard about the Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook crisis. If, despite Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of fixing Facebook, you still have this creepy feeling of being exposed and manipulated, there are a few things that can give you at least some peace of mind.
So, what an ordinary user, can do in the world of dominating malicious corporations? Deleting all social media accounts could help, but it is an equivalent of nuclear strike. It may be easy for a teenager that wants to make a point, but those who constructed their businesses on social media may express some concerns.
We need to accept that social media are here to stay. Despite the fact that our concern about personal information is growing, Facebook will remain a very important part of our internet life. Whether we use it or not.
There are a few basic things that casual users can do to protect privacy. Let me tell you about the two tools that I always use on my computers. It is a great example of the Pareto Principle in action as these two methods are the effective 20% that produce 80% of results. They do not solve all the problems, but they significantly improve online safety.
The first thing that I immediately do after the operating system is up and running…
Modify the hosts file
Some websites are more dangerous than the others: shady pages with pirated content, malicious scripts, adult stuff, etc. There is always a chance that you will end up on such suspicious page. They pretend to be just another website, but behind the facade, harmful codes, spying scripts, and tracking cookies are hiding. It is very difficult for an average user to be always careful and aware, but there is a simple solution. You can prevent your computer from visiting such places by modifying the hosts file.
The hosts file is a system file that contains the lists of selected network addresses and assists in addressing network nodes in a computer network. It can be used to deny access to the dangerous corners of the net, block online advertising, or the domains of known malicious resources. The hosts file tells the system to redirect requests to another addresses that do not exist or are harmless.
Very elegant solution, especially if your machine is used by kids or elderly people that lack understanding how website content is manipulated to lure them to install spyware. The hosts file is used by system services on a very basic level. This means that not only browser, but other applications as well, will not be able to connect fishy servers. Many phishing emails will be rendered harmless as well.
Of course, the first step is to collect the list of dangerous domains. Fortunately, this work has been done already. Steven Black’s GitHub repository contains the hosts file made of 60-70k suspicious addresses. Even if your computer is otherwise unprotected, installing the hosts file will reduce the risk of exposure to malicious content. If you still use the default hosts file, just overwrite it with the one downloaded from GitHub. To learn how to edit the hosts file on Windows, Mac, and Linux, read this handy guide written by Christopher Welker (How-To Geek).
Install uBlock Origin
Once the hosts file is in place, the next step is to arm the browser with proper protection tools. The options are many, but I personally use and recommend uBlock Origin.
It is a free cross-platform browser extension for content-filtering (for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and more…). There are many ways to use it. For example, I let my browser to access social media servers only when I visit their homepages. Neither Facebook nor Twitter will see the other pages I visit because I allowed their scripts only on a few selected websites. It is very simple way to reduce the exposure, but the learning curve for uBlock’s advanced features may be steep.
In the end, the combination of uBlock Origin and modified hosts file will do wonders. You will immediately notice the difference as many websites will start to load much faster and look cleaner. Still, the most important outcome is improved privacy, as you become invisible to most of tracking scripts and cookies.
If you truly want to embark on a quest for complete internet privacy you will need to learn much more. The great place to start is http://privacytools.io. It is very comprehensive information source that offers knowledge, advice, tools, and many advanced methods to improve personal privacy while browsing the internet.
And of course, even the best plugin will not make any difference, if you keep putting your private personal information on public servers. But it is another story…