American citizens can now have their online activities tracked by their ISP (Internet Service Provider) and that information sold, thanks to a decision made last month by the U.S. Congress. There are some steps Android users can take to protect their privacy, however.
As if ISP tracking isn’t not bad enough, there are a number of advertising networks that use online ads to build a profile of your likes and dislikes, from shoes to political parties. Fortunately, much of this tracking can be blocked as well.
But take note, your choice of an Android phone or tablet is going to make this job more challenging that it otherwise might be. This operating system was developed by Google, whose entire business is built on profits made from collecting data about its users, and then selling it.
Give Up Gmail
Google scans every email sent or received through Gmail, and uses that information for the profiles it builds on its users. There’s simply no way to use this service and maintain your privacy.
But there are a number of services that do offer secure messaging. The best known of these is Hushmail, which encrypts the contents of your emails and provides secure connections to their servers. Accounts are accessible through Android email applications, or through the Web.
Gmail is free because Google gets its money from the advertisers that use the profile the company has built on you. Hushmail and similar services aren’t ad supported, so you have to pay for them. A personal Hushmail account is $49.98 a year.
But escaping Google’s reach is hard. Any messages you send to friends and family who have Gmail accounts will be scanned by Google, and the information gleaned added to your profile. About all you can do is ask them to switch to an email service that guards their privacy, and yours.
As a final note on this topic, although the Android OS requires you to have a gmail account, but you aren’t required to use it for anything but occasionally communicating with Google itself.
Change Your DNS
This technique might come across as a little technical but it’s actually quite easy to implement. And modifying the DNS (Domain Name Server) will go a long way toward preventing your ISP from tracking you.
A DNS server changes the ordinary names we humans use for websites, like NotebookReview.com, into the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses that our computers use, like 22.214.171.124. When you’re connected to your ISP, by default you are using their DNS server, so tracking every website you visit is an easy process.
Go to the Android Settings app > Wi-Fi, then long press name of the access point to which your phone or tablet is connected. This will bring up a menu of options from which you should select Modify Network. Next, tap on Advanced Options to display more settings. IP Settings is probably set to DHCP; change this to Static. Along with other settings, this will reveal two text boxes: DNS 1 and DNS 2. Put 126.96.36.199 into the first and 188.8.131.52 into the second.
And that’s all it takes to switch your DNS server–which could be tracking you–to one provided by OpenDNS, which promises “We take our users’ privacy is very seriously. No information will be shared with outside parties.”
Google stores the terms you search for to build a database of your interests. And while the Chrome web browser on a tablet or phone allows you to change your default search engine, none of the other default options provide any more privacy.
Fortunately, there’s DuckDuckGo, a search engine that promises “What you search for is your own business. We don’t collect any personal information and therefore have none to share.”
Now that you know about it, you can easily make this your default search engine in Chrome. When you visit DuckDuckGo.com, you’ll see a note that says “Add DuckDuckGo to Brave”. Tap on that link, then while still in Chrome open the menu and go to Settings > Search Engine and select DuckDuckGo under Recently visited.
This will also make this service your Chrome home screen, in the same way Google used to be.
Install a VPN
The most serious way to keep your ISP or advertisers from tracking you is with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). This blocks Xfinity, Verizon, etc. from knowing what you are doing, and also prevents Google’s ad network from building a profile on you.
But there are trade offs. The most obvious is that the company that runs the VPN can potentially also track you. Still, using one means that you can start with the ISP that provides the best service and/or price, and then choose a VPN company that adds the best privacy.
Another tradeoff from using a VPN is that Internet access is often just a bit slower, as all traffic is being routed through remote servers, sometimes located in another country.
The absolute easiest option is Opera VPN, as this just requires a quick installation from the Google Play Store, followed by an extremely simple setup. The VPN service is provided by SurfEasy, an Opera subsidiary, which promises that it doesn’t store users’ originating IP addresses, nor does it retain information about the applications, services, or websites users consume while connected.
Those who want to choose an alternative VPN should do research to be sure that the company that provides it has a strong commitment to privacy. And you should also know that most reputable VPNs charge for the service. Opera VPN is an exception, because it includes advertisements in the application.
Also, be aware that rival VPN options won’t be apps like Opera’s offering, but rather a set of instructions on how to configure the settings of your Android tablet or phone to connect to the privacy service. The process won’t be too complicated, though.
As a final note, many budget/free VPNs use the PPTP protocol (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol). This method is obsolete and so insecure as to be essentially useless.
Block Ad Tracking
The Chrome browser has a Do Not Track option, available in the menu under Settings > Privacy > Do Not Track. This is something of an honor system, though, as it simply sends advertisers a request to not follow you. It’s up to them whether they pay any attention to your plea.
Blocking “cookies” is another option offered by this browser. Completely barring them will cause many websites to malfunction though. There is an interim setting, in which cookies are only accepted from websites you actually visit. This will prevent some advertisers from tracking you. To make this change, go to Chrome’s menu > Settings > Site settings > Cookies and uncheck Allow third-party cookies.
The nuclear option is an ad blocker. These interfere with the social contract between websites and users though, and aren’t really necessary, as Android devices offer so many other options to keep corporations from peering over your shoulder.
There are rumors that Google is going to build an ad blocker into Chrome, but this is expected to only prevent the display of “bad” ads. “Good” ads will supposedly still be allowed.
Google’s web browser has an Incognito Mode, in which Chrome doesn’t remember the pages you visit–they aren’t stored under History.
In this mode, Chrome does accept cookies because, as mentioned earlier, many web sites require them for normal functioning. However, a return to regular browsing will cause any new cookies to be deleted.
But Google warns users “You aren’t invisible. Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider, or the websites you visit.” Still, it’s useful to prevent someone who has physical access to your tablet or phone from knowing what it’s been used for.
To enable this more secure mode, tap the menu button at the top of the screen, and one of the resulting options will be New incognito tab; tapping on that clears the screen of non-private tabs, turns the background black, and sets the application so that any web pages that are opened are kept private.
It’s unfortunate that we have reached the point where we have to actively prevent corporations from spying on us. Even people who accept that the websites they love are free only because the costs of running them are defrayed by ads should feel uncomfortable about having an advertising network track everything they do on the Web.
The Internet has become a trade-off between privacy and convenience. Preventing companies from tracking you requires a bit of hassle, and the more hoops you are willing to jump through, the more privacy you can have. But even just a little bit of effort can make the job harder for the companies that want to invade your privacy for their financial gain.