Why you have something to hide online


Google’s Eric Schmidt famously said that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I get writer’s block thinking about all the ways that this statement is wrong. Or at the very least disingenuous. Because this conveniently tricks us into thinking that hiding is shameful.

It isn’t. We hide certain parts of us in certain ways at every moment of the day. And this is even truer online.

Hide from everyone

Our thoughts are a safe space. Even if we live in the most dictatorial place on the planet, no one can truly know our thoughts (though both Google and Apple are working on an app for that).

Our thoughts contain digressions both wonderful and scary, things we are both proud of and embarrassed by. I’m often fascinated by the strange twists that my thoughts take, even to a realm where I would be mortified if anyone knew. I can’t be the only one.

What if I want to explore one of these crazy ideas, while not wanting them to share with anyone I knew, for fear of judgement?

Hide from anyone

All of that is too theoretical. What about all those things that you don’t want everybody to know?

  • Do you want your mom and dad to know about your exciting bedroom antics?
  • Do you want your co-workers to know about the details of your parents’ divorce?
  • Do you want the person with the birthday knowing about the surprise party you’re planning?
  • Are you ready to come out? Right now?

Because there exist things that you don’t want everyone to know, then you need a way of hiding things when online, even if it’s selective.

They all know

A lot of people use Gmail these days, myself included. And logging in is a pain (ugh, so many passwords), so most people just stay logged in.

Then you open up a new tab and do a Google search. Congrats! That search is now associated with your online Google profile.

Repeat this with Facebook, Amazon, and any other of these sites who track you (which is to say, all of them) and you’ve built up quite a profile for yourself on other companies’ servers.

No thank you.

Your homework

In order for you to be able to browse with even the barest expectation of anonymity, you need to change your habits. For example, try this:

  • Download multiple browsers: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, Iron, etc.
  • Run them all in incognito (private browsing) mode, except for perhaps one that you wish to save previously viewed URLs.
  • Decide how each one is to be used.

For example, this is what I do:

  1. Saved searches: I use this one in non-private browsing mode, so I can remember sites I’ve visited before. I may perform some searches, but I do not log in to any tracking sites, such as Gmail. (I use Firefox for this.)
  2. Anonymity: I run this in Incognito Mode and do all of my searches that I don’t want associated with any accounts here, which is basically all of them. (I use Chrome for this.)
  3. Google account: I run this in Incognito mode and log into Gmail. And I do some searches here, when I don’t mind them being connected to my Google account. This is a Google Account-only browser. (I use Iron for this, which most people haven’t heard of, but it’s basically a version of Chrome stripped of Google’s fingerprints.)

Sound like a lot of work? Perhaps. But there’s a important analogy to make with multiple browsers: each browser becomes a conversation with a different type of person you interact with. You would have a different conversation with your boss than your best friend, right?

In the above scenario, you can think of the interactions like having conversations with the following people:

  1. A co-worker/boss
  2. A librarian or other anonymous reference source
  3. A good friend

Circle shaming

Google should know better than to say such privacy-shaming quotes like the one above. After all, they released the “Circles” idea onto their own social network, on the very premise that you don’t want to share everything with everyone.

But there are some things that we don’t wish to share with anyone. And don’t let anyone let you believe that this is shameful. Especially when the purpose of the shaming is to make it easier to show advertising to you. Now that’s shameful.

But enough about me. Do you think about how your browsing habits are collected and used? Do you have ideas on how to better keep your online activities private?


  1. saulofhearts

    The other thing to keep in mind is that you often don’t know if something jibes with you until after you’ve searched for it. Searching for cat videos doesn’t mean you actually LIKE cat videos. Maybe you just want to see what all the fuss is about. This issue isn’t just an Internet problem. Store loyalty cards that track purchases are also an invasion of privacy. Like how Target “figures out” when women are expecting based on recent purchases, and sends related advertisements to their house, essentially informing the rest of the family that a baby is on the way. Not cool.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Good point, I hadn’t thought about looking for things not being indicative of supporting them. (After all, someone looking up info on The Anarchist’s Cookbook might just be interested in the sheer retro thrill, and not actually interested in blowing things up.)

      I have no problem with the ability for entities to track me, so long as this ability is actually granted by me. It’s the tracking without consent where I have a problem.

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