How not to be seen (when online)


There’s been a lot of talk about spying recently in the news. These accusations (most of which, as far as I can tell, are not unfounded) bring a related reminder that what we do online is all-too-easily able to be accessed by entities that aren’t you.

While I don’t talk about technology very much on this site, it is so ever-present in our lives that we all need to be tech experts as much as we need to be investing experts.

So consider this a bit of public service announcement regarding on one or two small things that you can do to help reduce your “online footprint.”

(Inspiration for the title of this post courtesy of Monty Python.)

Going incognito

I don’t want my browsing history sites being tracked by anyone. But when you use a browser, information (passwords, site history, various movements) is stored on your computer. And there are ways for a site you visit to become aware of other sites you visit.

Luckily, there is an easy way to minimize this information from being cataloged, and that is to use your browser’s “Incognito Mode.”

Called variously Private Browsing (Firefox), InPrivate Browsing (Internet Explorer), or Incognito Mode (Chrome), it is a browsing mode that is “sandboxed”, where no data/history from your session is saved after you close the browser.

Incognito Mode
Incognito Mode (Chrome)

Log out

Incognito Mode doesn’t intrinsically prevent data from being stored remotely, but it does help, because when you close/reopen an Incognito browser, you are not logged into any of your sites.

Staying logged into sites such as Facebook or Google is a convenience, but this convenience comes at a price. Every time you search for something in Google, Google records what you have searched for and what you end up clicking on. I don’t know exactly what Facebook does, but I’m pretty sure that since the Facebook login is integrated into most sites, Facebook knows what else you are doing. Sorry Mark, that’s privileged information.

If you are logged out of Google or Facebook (or whatever site that wishes to track your moves) then they cannot track your movements. Yes, you will have to log in each time you start your browser when using Incognito Mode, but that is a small price to pay for minimizing your online footprint.

If you’re still not convinced about Incognito Mode and logging out, here’s a added perk where you can read the New York Times online without any limitations. The New York Times website stores activity on your computer, so if you tend to hit up against their “10 free articles a month” policy, just read your articles in an Incognito Mode browser, and then close/reopen it to reset the counter!

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You also may just want to support them and pay for a digital subscription.
You also may just want to support them and pay for a digital subscription.

Use multiple browsers

But if you’re logged out of Google, then you can’t check your Gmail account! If you’re logged out of Facebook, how will you be able to view all those pictures of your friends’ meals?

You’re in luck. Since you can have multiple browsers installed on your computer, you can simply use one browser for being logged in to sites and another for all other activity. Log into Facebook, Google, et al, on Chrome (in Incognito Mode, of course), and then do your searching in Firefox or Internet Explorer, or whatever you wish (also in Incognito Mode) but without being logged in.


Mobile users, you’re not out of luck. As far as I can tell (though not from much personal experience), every major phone operating system (iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile) includes the ability to browse in an Incognito Mode. (Here’s an example of how to enable Private Browsing on Safari for iOS.)

Expert mode

If you use Incognito Mode and multiple browsers for your various tasks, you will keep your local computer clean of your usage, and minimize what usage is stored about you. That’s a lot of gain for not a lot of pain.

That said, your internet service provider knows what website you’re visiting, and anyone doing network traffic analysis can still track your usage as well. This may not matter to you if you live in relatively “free” society, but if you live in a place that may not have a great track record on human rights, then this becomes more important. Visiting a website, in my opinion, should not be a punishable, but in some places, this is what happens.

Luckily, there is a way to increase the anonymity of your online habits, and that is by using Tor. Tor is a kind of relay network, where your request gets bounced around to lots of intermediate sites such that it becomes infeasible to be tracked.

Look into a glass onion (router)
Look into a glass onion (router).

A great irony about Tor is that it was originally funded by the US government. The NSA, the government agency accused of spying on US citizens, has been largely unable to unmask Tor’s encryption, allowing people to better remain anonymous. Whoops.

Digital consent

You may not feel the need to go the Tor route. But I hope you will keep in mind that what do you online is being tracked by multiple parties. And that this matters. If nothing else, the more information you allow to be stored adds risk: risk of identity theft, risk of financial theft, and so forth.

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It’s important to note that this is not about “having something to hide;” this is about consent. I want to decide who gets to know things about myself, and what I do online is not something I consent to having stored. (I wouldn’t want someone recording every word I said in conversation either).

Unfortunately, in this realm, “consent” is technically granted by default, and so we must be hyper-vigilant and aware. Luckily, you have the power to control this. I don’t know what others could do with my online information, but personally I’d rather not give them a chance to find out.

But enough about me. How do you minimize your online footprint? Feel free to share some tips in the comments below.

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