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Online Privacy.

Many people do not realise how many people are interested in tracking what they are up to online. Or how effective they are at doing it. Advertisers, identity thieves, your own government - all want to see what you are up to, and many of them are VERY good at it.

The current UK coalition government want to formalise things with what has widely been called a snoopers charter - and as the previous labour government  wanted something very similar, it;s likely it will arrive sooner or later.

This article will explain many of the things you can do to keep your privacy.

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Overview. What do they do, and how do they do it?

When you use a web page, there are several steps along the way.

So, it should become clear that between you and your email service there are potentially several points at which this can be intercepted and examined. The most popular for government snoops is the local ISP to the user. And a close second is the mail provider themselves. It is important to note that over 99% of email companies will hand over any information requested to the governments of companies they operate in, silently, with no chance for you to challenge it.

Similarly with ISP’s - they will also hand over information pretty much on request, without telling you. If they want to stay in business they do what they are told, and that applies to western democracies every bit as much as Communist China.

The only reason I don’t say 100% is that there just might be an exception I have never heard of.


Cookies are small files on your computer that store information for a web site. This can be useful to you - it will remember your preferences without needing you to log in. They can also be used to track you, by sharing information between web sites. Here’s a common example.

I was looking for a good compact camera to recommend to a friend who wanted advice. I found an interesting and unusually attractive one which his wife would like, and looked up some details. After this, for weeks afterwards, all sorts of sites started showing me adverts for this exact same model camera, including ones I had never seen before. Creepy. This is what advertisers mean by providing a service of relevant targeted adverts. By sharing cookie information they can track you around the web.

IP Addresses

I think we need short note about IP addresses - don’t worry, I will keep it simple.

Everything connected to the web needs an IP address, so that information can be routed correctly. This looks like a sequence of four short numbers, maybe When you connect to the Internet, you are given a number (you don’t need to see it), so information can be sent to you. Some things have permanent addresses, some change. And there’s a very important table used by the whole Internet which matches Internet names (like to these numbers.

So when you use a web site, it will have your IP address, to send information back to you. Governments and the police can then pester them, to find out what IP address information was sent to. This will lead them to your ISP, who can then tell them that “At that time Mr Smith was using that IP address”.

This has some serious problems. Mistakes are easily made. Maybe it was not Mr Smith, but one of his family. Maybe a neighbour guessed his password, and is using the connection. Maybe someone passing by had hacking tools, and cracked the password to use Mr Smith’s connection for criminal purposes.

Prosecutors like to pretend that an IP address reliably identifies a person. It does no such thing.

So, How does anything stay safe?

In a word, encryption. If you connect to your bank, you obviously don’t want people being able to read your bank details. So there’s an encryption system set up so that only the people at either end see the real text, and those in the middle see garbled code. This is often done using HTTPS - normally you would connect to a web site starting with HTTP //: before the www bit. HTTPS shows it is encrypted - the S is for “Secure”.

This brings me to a very simple tool which I strongly recommend


It’s an addition to the browser which will always use an HTTPS connection if one is available. Find out more and get it HERE. It’s zero effort, and free.

How can I keep my email private?

Well, there are commercial operations like HUSHMAIL. If you use your preferred search engine to find “secure email” you will find many options, but the good ones cost, or are severely limited.

My own approach is to use small free email company based in another country. I use for personal email, based in Germany with servers in the USA, it will take a bit more effort if the snoops want a look.

Many foreign email companies offer English language interfaces, even if they don’t speak much English there. And if you do speak a foreign language, all the better - it’s hard to imagine the Russian police helping out Western authorities just because they asked…

But if the service is based in a country where they have strong privacy laws, all the better.

The Onion Router

Remember me saying about how Internet requests can pass through several other points? The Onion Router uses this to your advantage. Requests and relies that go through The Onion Router (TOR) are deliberately bounced around between participating computers, so the end web site will see a random IP address, not yours.

It can be very helpful to hide you tracks, and is popular in countries where oppressive regimes try and control the web. Sadly these days that includes western democracies.

Find out more, and download HERE. Its free.

It can slow things down a bit, and it does not work well with torrents, which are strongly discouraged as they use other peoples bandwidth. It can also drive up the amount of data you use when your computer is active in TOR.

End to End security: VPN’s

Have you ever worked from home on a company laptop? It’s not unusual these days, and of course the company doesn’t want their information leaking all over the Internet. This is done using a Virtual Private Network or VPN. Don’t worry about the jargon, the end result is that your connection appears to come out of the VPN site, not from your own computer. And it is very strongly encrypted. This has several major advantages:

There can be other advantages too - many VPN companies operate in several countries, and your computer can appear to be located in any of them. This means you can use a VPN to access the BBC iPlayer when not in the UK, or US based services not normally available in Europe.

There is still a weakness - there’s clearly nothing to stop the authorities leaning on the VPN company. So always check if the VPN company keeps logs - if there’s no record kept, there’s nothing to hand over. Now if there is a genuinely serious crime involved, I suspect they will cooperate, but for me its the blanket surveillance that offends. Personally I have no problem with police tracking people if they can present good evidence its needed.

Personally I use AIR VPN, and I am happy to recommend them. 5 euros a month when you pay for three months at a time, not much for safe secure browsing.

The Torrent Freak news site did a very good review of which VPN companies take privacy seriously, and its well worth reading. Read the article HERE.

VPN’s can also be useful for accessing online banking securely - do you really trust that free wi-fi you spotted at your hotel or the airport? It’s effectively an ISP run by a complete stranger. Be aware though that some banks track VPN companies, as they don;t want people to appear to be in a different country from where they really are. It makes sense if you think about some East European hacker using a VPN to pretend to be in London. So don’t be surprised if you hit login difficulties.

Back to those pesky adverts.

What about those creepy adverts? I strongly recommend Ad Block Plus. It’s another browser plugin, and is one of the first things I install when setting up a new PC. It removes almost all the adverts from pages you visit. This often improves the web pages a LOT!

Animated ‘flash’ adverts sometimes get through, and for that reason I use Flash Block, here’s a FireFox version:

And a Google search will find versions for other browsers. It replaces flash videos with a ‘play’ button, so you choose if you want to see the video. You can also right click the play button to allow a site to always play, handy for things like YouTube.