How To Be Private Online

This a summary of all the software and services that we recommend for personal privacy and autonomy.

In A Nutshell

The simplest actions to increase your privacy online:

  1. Use a Virtual Private Network (like Private Internet Access) on all your computer and mobile devices (see our article explaining VPNs)
  2. Use a secure web browser like Firefox with privacy-mode turned on, and privacy enhancing add-ons installed (see details below); or use the Tor Browser, for extra privacy
  3. Use a search engine that doesn’t track you like StartPage (a Google mirror) or Ixquick (like StartPage but doesn’t include Google results)
  4. Use a reasonably private email provider (e.g. Riseup) and a secure instant messenger like Wickr

More Details

Web Browsing

To make your internet activities anonymous, use a VPN (or Virtual Private Network) — see all our recommended VPN providers here.

For web browsing, use Firefox with privacy-mode turned on, and install these add-ons: HTTPS-Everywhere, Disconnect and Cookie Whitelist. I also recommend disabling Java and Flash (either one can be a security risk — see an explanation here). You can selectively activate Java and Flash by setting the “Ask To Active” option in the plugin settings in Firefox.

You can turn off third-party cookies — these are cookies that are sent to advertising firms. Turning off these cookies just means you’ll be tracked less — it won’t affect your browsing ability. I prefer to turn off cookies completely, and use the Cookie Whitelist add-on to only accept cookies from specific sites that I log into.

Chromium is an open-source version of the Chrome Browser by Google. While I recommend Firefox as the most reliable browser for privacy enthusiasts, Chromium is probably a reasonable alternative for everyday web browsing. Chromium does have the advantage of being a speedier than Firefox in certain areas (such as start-up time). Here is a comparison chart and a technical discussion assessing the speed and privacy features of Chromium and Firefox. It seems that Chromium may make some behind-the-scenes calls to Google, but these can be blocked with a plugin or scripting.

Many of the privacy-enhancing plugins I recommend for Firefox are also available for Chromium, such as HTTPS-Everywhere, Disconnect and Ad Block Plus.

For a higher level of web browsing privacy, use the Tor Browser or Tails.

For a search engine, use StartPage or Ixquick because they do not track your searches. I like StartPage because it incorporates search results from Google, while removing all identifying information from your query, and returning the results anonymously from Google. Ixquick and StartPage’s privacy policy is periodically confirmed by two independent organizations — Europrise and Certified Secure.

Email and Instant Messages

For email, you can a use reasonably private email provider (e.g. Riseup) or CounterMail (based in Sweden). To fully encrypt your emails you can use Thunderbird with Enigmail and GnuPG (please note that your email receipted must use encrypted email too, for this to work). If you are technically inclined, you can host your own email server — Zimbra and Sendmail are free and open-source email servers.

For instant messaging, use Pidgin or Adium (with Jabber). These are free applications that support encrypted instant messaging.

Mobile Devices

Currently, your best choice for a private mobile device is one that runs Android which is open source. However, the Android operating system provided with phones and tablets is often modified with the addition of proprietary applications from Google or others and may compromise your privacy. But you can replace it with either Replicant (a free Android distribution) or CyanogenMod (or compile Android from source for your device). See The Unlockr website for more information on how to unlock/root your device (or go directly to Cyanogenmod or F-Droid).

On Android, these apps support privacy: Orbot, OrWeb, Gibberbot, ObscuraCam, TextSecure, K-9 and APG, CSipSimple. There’s a full list here: Open Source Android software.

On iOS, these apps support privacy: Wickr, Atomic Web Browser, Chat Secure, Onion Browser.

Video / Voice Chat (VOIP)

Instead of Facetime or Skype (which was recently bought by Microsoft and has eavesdropping capabilities) look into these projects: Linphone (also Red Phone, Jitsi, GNU Telephony, Empathy or Ekiga).

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Torrenting

I recommend using torrent client that support encrypted transfers like uTorrent, Transmission and Deluge. To avoid snoopers, I also recommend running a VPN that does not log your activities while torrenting (like Private Internet Access). Or you can run your own VPN using Open VPN. Alternatively, you can use a private file sharing application like Retroshare or OneSwarm.

Cloud Storage / Syncing

Dropbox is a great app, but it doesn’t encrypt your files before they leave your computer. You can use Truecrypt to create a encrypted container inside Dropbox to store your files. There are also open source cloud storage solutions: ownCloud and Tonido. Other good choices include Wuala, SpiderOak and Symform — these services encrypt your data before it leaves your computer. They can be challenging to set up, however.

Operating Systems

You can switch to the mostly open-source Linux/GNU operating system. Both Windows and Mac OS X limit your control when using your computer, and both systems have proprietary code that is not accessible to you. You can read about the problems with Windows, Mac OS X and the iPhone.

ThinkPenguin sells computers with Linux pre-installed — useful if you want to get started with Linux quickly.

If you want to install Linux yourself, try Luna, Mint Linux or Kubuntu. These are flavors of Linux that are easy to use and don’t require complex installations.

OpenBSD is probably the most secure Unix-like OS.

Trisquel is a fully open-source Linux distribution.

See also the Tails Linux distribution, which is focused on privacy.

Social Media

Instead of using Twitter you can use App.net or Glassboard. In place of Facebook, you can use Buddycloud, Friendica or Movim. These are social networking platforms with good privacy features, and allow you to retain control of your data.

Instead of YouTube or Flickr, you can use MediaGoblin.

Blogging

WordPress is a great free and open source blogging system.

Applications

Calibre is an e-reader that supports numerous e-book formats. It can remove DRM, and it converts and sends your e-books to e-reading devices.

VLC is an excellent open-source video player. XBMC and Plex are great media center applications. Clementine is a full featured music player (iTunes alternative).

Libre Office is an open-source alternative to commercial word processing apps like MS Office.

GIMP and Inkscape are good replacements for Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Serious photographers should also check out the excellent digiKam, for photo management.

Other Lists Of Open Source Software

Here are some list of open-source software: the Libre Projects list, the Open Source God list (on Mashable), the Free and Open Source Software list (on Wikipedia).

Update 2013: See also this the site Prism Break, which has info on opting out of global data surveillance programs like PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora.