Over the last few weeks I've been making a concerted effort to reduce my online footprint. One of the things I've been doing to that end is reconsidering what search engine and web browser I use when online. And while I've settled on a combination that works, for now, it's not been without challenges. Here's what I'm using, the challenges and how I plan to overcome them.
Where did this start?
I have to start by acknowledging someone. Over 20 years ago I worked at a small training company where we taught folks how to use office apps, email, web browsers and other cutting edge tools.
It was the mid 1990s and the tools we take for granted today were new and scary for many people.
One of my colleagues was Dr Joe.
We caught up for lunch a few weeks ago and had a very wide-ranging and fast-moving conversation about how we have become the most surveilled society to have existed and that fighting for true privacy and anonymity is really hard today.
Some of the things we could do to obscure our online footprint are really hard and disruptive. I'll get into those over the coming weeks as I spend more time using those tools and getting a real handle on them.
But one of the things I took away from the conversation is that there are some things I can do now that will make a difference.
Changing my default search engine
Google has become synonymous with search. Just as Xerox and Hoover became verbs, so has Google. But Google tracks every single thing you do. Its' happened subtly over the years.
When Dr Joe and I started working together, Google was very new and it didn't track which links we clicked on. Now, when you click on a search result, it's tracked and recorded by Google.
I've been using DuckDuckGo as the default search engine on all my devices for the last few weeks. I chose DuckDuckGo for two reasons:
- It has a good reputation for honouring its promise to not track search results
- It integrates easily with all the web browsers I use
The change was largely easy although there was an adjustment period.
I often use the "site:" modifier when searching and that works well wth DuckDuckGo. But the option to limit search results to Australia is pretty crappy.
But the overall switch has been reasonably easy.
Changing my default we browser
This change has been a little harder.
I settled on Brave but there are lots of other options that are probably at least as good. And you can improve the privacy options on most popular browsers by installing the right plug-ins - something Dr Joe does.
Almost every modern web browser today conforms to the rules and standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium so I haven't encountered any problems with pages not rendering correctly on online sites and services I use not working.
Interestingly, some of the most popular websites in Australia have in excess of 30 ads and trackers on just a single web page. It's no wonder we need larger data allowances than ever before.
According to Brave, in just a couple of weeks, it has blocked over 600 trackers and 8000 ads from my browsing.
The real problem was something I anticipated but didn't fully expect to have such an impact; passwords.
I have something like 600 user accounts and passwords stored in my Apple Keychain - I'm a Mac user. And, if I stay in Apple's ecosystem that works pretty well. macOS is good at generating complex passwords and between that and two-factor authentication whenever I can use it, I think I do a reasonable job at protecting user accounts.
But Apple's closed ecosystem doesn't allow me to share those passwords with apps like Brave.
Brave has its own password management tool and I can sync that data across devices but I'm mindful that all I'm doing is creating another lock-in situation.
For now, I'm living with the pain but my next step will be to cut the umbilical to Apple's Keychain and move to a third party password manager.
My other problem is that I use an iPhone and iPad and Apple simply doesn't let me choose what browser I'd like to use. I have shifted the Safari icon away on those devices and placed the Brave icon where I'll always see it but there's no way to tell iOS to use my preferred browser.
And yes, I could move away from iOS but that's not easy when my family uses a bunch of iOS tools like iMessage, FaceTime, Family Sharing and Screen Time.
For now, I'm living with that pain in the hope that Apple will offer some freedom in iOS 13.
I've already taken the step of deleting all my Google activity.
My next step is to investigate multi-platform password management solutions and make a decision on one. It will need to securely sync across devices and platforms.
I'm also going to set a little bit of time aside each day to review and cull online accounts that I no longer use. That's going to be an interesting exercise.
With my email accounts, I'm going to progressively start moving things away from the platforms I'm using now to ProtonMail. And, as my existing VPN subscription is about to end, I'll be shifting to ProtonVPN as well.