There's an old adage in Silicon Valley that bears repeating: if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. Looking your way Facebook, Google, Snap, Instagram and a trove of others.
Those are products, but what about the internet, on the whole. Cookies and tracking are a part of digital life, but there are ways you can get a little more privacy - get a little more separation between you and the marketers (at best) or the snoops, government or otherwise (pretty much the worst).
Europeans have it way better than Americans when it comes to demanding privacy, no-follows and the right to be forgotten (digitally, of course ... I'd never forget you).
Let's start at the macro level, and then we'll land the plane with specific apps for your phones.
What is a Virtual Privacy Network? Why Should You Care?
When you're online, you're an IP address. That sequence of numbers is your fingerprint, your digital DNA, your bread crumbs. VPNs help you mask that number, sending your trail of digital crumbs around the world, making it harder to track you.
VPNs can be controversial, and the recent blocking of VPNs by Netlifx teases that out. Basically, access via VPN can get you around geographic restrictions, like trademarks and fair use rules, so you can watch Jessica Jones from just about anywhere.
Also, VPNs can be outlawed, like in the United Arab Emirates. In China, users use them to get around the Great Firewall of China and read unapproved news sites.
However, VPNs can be used for good, too, especially when you're roaming the earth, looking to get into adventures - but you have to hop on a public WiFi. Having your information masked via VPN can keep the creeps from digging into your profile, hacking your goods.
Pro tip: several of these VPNs will give you a free trial period. Set a calendar reminder to evaluate the performance before they start billing you. Like all revolving accounts, they can be difficult to cancel, down the line. (Looking your way, testosterone supplements!!)
Safe Browsing (... or Wrapping Your Digital Rascal)
The web browser known as Opera is pretty much the ultimate when it comes to enabling its users to stay incognito online.
The majority browser around the world is Google's Chrome. You can check your privacy settings here. There are also add-ons you can get for Chrome. The list is varied, so I'll just link thru to a Reddit thread.
DuckDuckGo started as a search engine that did not track your searches. The team at DuckDuckGo is dedicated to privacy, and is highly legit. I urge you to follow them on Twitter and use their products.
Apple's Safari browser is a little better at its basic level about user privacy (the entire company is, in fact, including access to iPhones of killers), but keep this in mind: these companies all want your data and they will all cheat on you, if given the chance.
<strike>Sexting</s> I mean, TEXTing
Shipping some 'precious moments' via SMS to a friend? You need to practice safe sexting.
First, Apple does not track your texts if you're sending from one account holder to another. So there's that.
Signal Private Messenger is a messaging app that values privacy above all else. (I've not used it, but a colleague highly recommends it. And that assessment scans in the online reviews, too.)
Honestly, TechRadar already did the homework on messaging apps, so here's that link.
Don't Get All TORe Up About It
Finally, let's talk Tor. I'm giving Tor it's own, pithy headline because it's both a browser and a movement.
If you're looking for privacy and portability, then this is for you. Here's the def from their site:
- Tor Browser lets you use Tor on Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, or GNU/Linux without needing to install any software. It can run off a USB flash drive, comes with a pre-configured web browser to protect your anonymity, and is self-contained (portable).
Tor hides your IP address and your browsing history. One thing to note (that I find funny, at least) is a Google search of Tor also surfaces "Is using Tor illegal?" (Answer: it's not, but it can be used for shady situations. Welcome to the internet!)
Bottom line: there are ways to ghost, digitally speaking. It isn't easy, though. And established sites will try to find ways to thwart your motivation to be private.
What you sacrifice for privacy is often convenience. It's up to you which way those scales tip.