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Big Brother Is Watching You Online: How To Avoid Being Tracked

Big Brother Is Watching You Online: How To Avoid Being Tracked

News briefs bombard television sets and computer screens around the globe, with cases of government whistleblowers, spying, cell phone hacking, private photographs leaked via iCloud, and more. Reports of the United States’ government usage of the PRISM program allegedly tracking over 1 million persons in the United States alone, has been particularly startling. Naturally, growing interest and attention has been placed on privacy and security, not only in banks and boardrooms but bedrooms and coffee shops around the world. Many want to avoid being tracked online, followed, spied on and their information automatically gathered, even if just to “check” on their Google searches, Skype calls, Facebook posts or email messages.

There are many ways to protect yourself from the prowling eyes of Big Brother and others who make a living following your every cyber move, but do keep in mind that nothing is 100% fool-proof. You have to assume that scammers, spammers, and others spend their days and nights finding ways to make your online experience vulnerable and under constant threat. That doesn’t mean you should succumb or act recklessly online, however.

Just to be extra cautious, before you even start reading this article, put a small strip of black electrical tape over your built-in computer camera. Hackers can remotely activate your webcam. Usually you’ll be able to tell it’s been turned on due to the red light, but that’s not always the case. There are techniques hackers and scammers use to avoid detection; don’t fall prey to their prying eyes.

These are 12 ways to keep your information out of the crosshairs.

1. Clean your Internet browsing history after every use.

You are most commonly tracked online by your IP address and emails. Every site you visit online tracks your time spent there and leaves what are called ‘cookies’ on your computer. ‘Cookies,’ also known as ‘HTTP cookie,’ ‘web cookie,’ or ‘browser cookies’ are best thought of like crumbs. They remain, like little crumbs after you’ve eaten a cookie, in your machine and keep track of everything you’ve done. This is what allows you to log-in to previously viewed websites without being prompted to manually enter passwords and usernames every time. It keeps you logged in, or your data will already be pre-filled out before you log on. This is also one way that companies can see what items you are viewing when shopping or what articles you are reading on a news site or what you are researching on any given day. This helps companies and organizations determine how to engage with you and which product descriptions and pop-up ads will attract you to buy or click.

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To get around this, you have to actively clean out your search history, and set your viewing patterns to private. Anything from Google Chrome, Firefox, all versions of Safari, Internet Explorer, Opera, and AOL, among others, can be cleaned out. Click each service above for specific instructions on how to delete your browsing history.

You can also download Piriform for deleting some bits of your online footprint. Ensuring you erase this data is one way to avoid being tracked online. You’ll need to keep better track of passwords, when you do this. If you are having a hard time managing your passwords, KeePassX is a password vault stored locally on your computer and encrypted.

2. Create specific passwords for each account.

Don’t rely on the Internet to keep you safe. And don’t assume that no one will attempt to hack into your accounts because you’re not that interesting or you don’t have anything worth stealing. The lazier you are online the more chance for harm against you. Avoid passwords like ‘abcdef’ or ‘12345,’ and certainly never ‘password.’ Don’t share your passwords. Stay organized while creating online accounts. Keep them stored on a USB key document or in a notebook only you have access to. Take time to make passwords that are hard to guess and devoid of information that many people might know. If you are having trouble developing a good password, try LastPass.

3. Avoid JavaScript search engines.

StartPage, Google Chrome, Firefox, Duck Duck Go, and Cyber Ghost are alternative options to traditional search engines that track your behavior and choices online. Basic search engines use JavaScript. JavaScript is like the glue that keeps the Internet together. But it’s also what’s used in ‘cookies.’ If you are trying to avoid being tracked online, JavaScript, in a sense, is your enemy. You should take precautions to protect yourself from its power.

4. Use Tor and a Linux Live Image, like Tails.

Tor is one of the best methods of protection and security. Tor is free to download and install. By using Tor, you scramble your IP address, disguising your location and personal data. Your IP address, or Internet Protocol, is a numeric access code needed to use the internet. Your computer is automatically assigned an IP address via your internet provider, like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, among many others, and remains your online identifier. Tor is a trusted source for the likes of businesses, activists, journalists, military, law enforcement agencies, and even Edward Snowden.

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BBC is reporting, as of Monday, November 3, 2014, that Facebook is now allowing users to connect directly to the social network via Tor. This will be particularly beneficial for those in nations like North Korea, China, and Cuba, where Internet usage is heavily comprised.

A Linux Live Image, like Tails, is another useful method to avoid being tracked online. You can download the service, and burn it to a CD or USB key. It won’t allow any storing of your Internet activity, so after you shut down your computer, all your searches and other work will not be stored. If you opt for this, make sure you save your files, in pdf form, directly to the computer or on a USB key.

5. Don’t reply to suspicious emails and never accept friendship requests from people you don’t personally know.

This is one easy way Internet users slip up and invite spying and stalking, without knowing it. In recent news, police were using fake Facebook accounts to spy on users. Of course, the film Catfish is another cautionary tale of revealing too much online to people you don’t know. Take time to look through all your online accounts, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Remove and block contacts that send you spam messages; don’t positively engage in your network or those with whom you have no connections or don’t know in real life. It’s not impolite to decline invitations that won’t work for you, especially if you don’t even know the person extending the invitation or what their intention is.

If you are an Apple user, you can forward suspicious emails purporting to be from the company, to reportphishing@apple.com. Microsoft users can visit their Security and Privacy page for more details on reporting questionable activity. Don’t shy away from the Facebook Report button, either.

6. Encrypt your email messages.

You can encrypt e-mails and files using GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG or GPG). Your files will be bullet-proof and unreadable unless one has your pass phrase and the answer to your ‘‘secret question’’. When you install GPG, you are asked to provide a pass phrase and generate private and public keys. Keep the private key and pass phrase as safe as a newborn baby. These will allow you to decrypt your messages and files. When someone wants to send you a message or file they will use your public key to encrypt it. Feel free to share your public key with all persons you want to communicate with under the radar. This is how Edward Snowden leaked information to guerrilla film maker, Laura Poitras and The Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

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7. Use a burner laptop and cell phone.

A ‘burner’ laptop or cellphone is a normal device. You can purchase a ‘burner’ like you normally would purchase a computer or cell phone. Choose whichever is in your price range, but the cheaper the better. For a ‘burner’ cell phone, choose a pre-paid version and pay only in cash. The ‘burner laptop’ is the only laptop you will ever use to connect to the internet. That includes streaming YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, or social networking sites. All internet access should go through this laptop, if you are intent on avoiding being tracked online. You can keep a computer for personal documents, diary entries, numbers, spread sheets or other personal files. Never save anything to the burner laptop. Once a month re-install the operating system you’ve chosen, and completely re-format the drive.

8. Use Bitcoins.

The usage of Bitcoin is still a questionable monetary system, and not in general use with the public but still gaining considerable momentum in the financial arena. Bitcoin and Pay Pal have been joining forces. Some claim, using Bitcoins allow you to avoid paying taxes, and can be purchased anonymously, so you may avoid being tracked online or by other electronic means. It’s also a threat to central governments and disrupting the traditional banking system.

9. Don’t post overly personal details anywhere online.

Avoid birth dates, middle names, maiden names, social security numbers, telephone numbers, bank numbers or personal information on family members. Don’t post photographs that you would feel uncomfortable for others to see or potentially copy and re-use. This can be difficult, but setting your accounts to private and screening all friend requests is one to protect yourself and avoid being tracked online.

10. Read all the fine print.

When setting up online accounts, you are offered a User Agreement policy to read. Don’t ignore them. Copy and paste for later in-depth reading, wait to set up an account until you have the time to read through all the rules associated with that online forum or account. Make yourself aware of the implications involved. Avoid agreeing to contracts that you feel uncomfortable with or are unsure about. Some online accounts, apps or forums take liberty to use your personal details and even your networks personal details.

11. Pay attention to your privacy settings and updates to privacy options.

Look through your current online privacy settings, and set them according to your comfort level. Remember that when a company alters their privacy settings and security contracts, your previous settings are often not retained. Stay up to date and edit your settings. You may even wish to set a reminder on your phone for a monthly password change and check-up. The documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, takes a critical look at the ever-changing User Agreement policies.

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12. For the really paranoid: abandon all tech; use only paper, pen, typewriters and in-person chats and photo-sharing, the old-fashioned way.

Don’t assume spying or malicious hacking is only an American problem. After dozens of documents were released following government whistleblowers and data on the United States monitoring German intelligence, the German government took to typewriters, instead of electronic messaging services. Brazil, the United Kingdom and a number of other nations have also revealed aggressive means of data mining of their citizens.

Caveats and Pro-Tips to all information previously mentioned:

A. The trouble with all these methods is that criminals, and what the tech community calls, ‘black hat hackers,’ can also make use of these strategies and are often many steps ahead of you. This is what makes it hard to police the internet or prevent malicious use. The Dark Net, the nefarious underbelly of the internet, unseen by the general public, can be found using Tor. It is also home to The Silk Road, which allows criminals to sell anything from children to cocaine to hired killers.

B. Using public computer terminals, like those found at your local library or university, to avoid being tracked online, is not the answer. Your internet usage is still being tracked and is attached to your library account, which may include your Social Security Number, State Driver’s License or Identification Number. Government agencies, police and other authorities can still request your public internet behaviour, should you ever be accused of or charged with a crime. The positive side to this is that a criminal can be caught, like the recent murder case of Maribel Ramos in Orange County, California. Her murderer was found using the local library computer to pin-point a burial site using Google Maps.

Stay safe!

Featured photo credit: kennymatic via flickr.com

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Last Updated on August 6, 2018

20 Google Search Tips to Use Google More Efficiently

20 Google Search Tips to Use Google More Efficiently

Millions of people use Google search every day for a variety of reasons. Students use it for school, business people use it for research, and millions more use it for entertainment. But most people may not be using Google search to its full potential.

Want to use Google search more efficiently and get the search results you want quickly? Here are 20 Google search tips and tricks to maximize your search efficiency:

1. Use the tabs

The first tip is to use the tabs in Google search. On the top of every search are a number of tabs. Usually you’ll see Web, Image, News, and More. Using these tabs, you can help define what kind of search you need to do. If you need images, use the Image tab. If you are looking for a recent news article, use the News tab. It’s rudimentary and most people use the tabs already. If you are not, then it’s highly recommended to get associated with them. They can cut search times dramatically if utilized properly.

2. Use quotes

When searching for something specific, try using quotes to minimize the guesswork for Google search. When you put your search parameters in quotes, it tells the search engine to search for the whole phrase. For instance, if you search for Puppy Dog Sweaters, the engine will search for content that contains those three words in any order. However, if you search “Puppy Dog Sweaters”, it will search for that phrase exactly as you typed it. This can help locate specific information that may be buried under other content if not sorted out correctly.

3. Use a hyphen to exclude words

Sometimes you may find yourself searching for a word with an ambiguous meaning. An example is Mustang. When you Google search for Mustang, you may get results for both the car made by Ford or the horse. If you want to cut one out, use the hyphen to tell the engine to ignore content with one of the other. See the example below.

  • Mustang -cars

This tells the search engine to search for mustangs but to remove any results that have the word “car” in it. It can be wildly helpful when finding information about something without getting information about something else.

4. Use a colon to search specific sites

There may be an instance where you need to Google search for articles or content on a certain website. The syntax is very simple and we’ll show you below.

  • Sidney Crosby site:nhl.com

This will search for all content about famous hockey player Sidney Crosby, but only on NHL.com. All other search results will be removed. If you need to find specific content on a particular site, this is the shortcut you can use.

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5. Find a page that links to another page

This Google search tip is a little obscure. Instead of searching for a specific page, you’re searching for a page that links to a specific page. Think about it this way. If you want to see who cited a New York Times article on their site, you would use this trick to find all the sites that link to it. The syntax is below.

  • link:nytimes.com

That will return all pages that link to the New York Times official website. The URL on the right side can be practically anything. Be aware, though, that the more specific it is, the fewer results you’ll get. We know not a lot of people will likely use this Google search trick, but it could be very useful for some.

6. Use the asterisk wildcard

The asterisk wildcard is one of the most useful ones on the list. Here’s how it works. When you use an asterisk in a search term on Google search, it will leave a placeholder that may be automatically filled by the search engine later. This is a brilliant way to find song lyrics if you don’t know all the words. Let’s look at the syntax.

  • “Come * right now * me”

To you or me, that may look like nonsense. However, Google search will search for that phrase knowing that the asterisks can be any word. More often than not, you’ll find they are lyrics to The Beatles song “Come Together” and that’s what the search will tell you.

7. Find sites that are similar to other sites

This is a unique one that could be used by practically everyone if they knew it existed. Let’s say you have a favorite website. It can be anything. However, that website is getting a little bit boring and you want to find other websites like it. You would use this trick. Below is the syntax.

  • related:amazon.com

If you search that above, you won’t find a link to Amazon. Instead, you’ll find links to online stores like Amazon. Sites like Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and others that sell physical items online. It’s a powerful Google search tool that can help you find new sites to browse.

8. Use Google search to do math

As a college student, I can attest that I use this one rather frequently. Google search can actually do math for you. This is a rather complex one to describe because it can be used in so many ways. You can ask it basic questions or some more difficult ones. It is important to note that it won’t solve all math problems, but it will solve a good number of them. Here are a couple of examples of the syntax.

  • 8 * 5 + 5
  • Planck’s Consant

If you search the first one, it’ll return 45. It will also show a calculator that you can use to find answers to more questions. This is handy if you need to do some quick math but don’t want to do it in your head. If you search the second term, it will return the number value of Planck’s Constant. So it can do math, but it can also help you solve math problems by showing values for known mathematical terms.

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9. Search for multiple words at once

Google search is flexible. It knows you may not find what you want by searching only a single word or phrase. Thus, it lets you search for multiples. By using this trick, you can search for one word or phrase along with a second word or phrase. This can help narrow down your search to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. Here is the syntax.

  • “Best ways to prepare for a job interview” OR “How to prepare for a job interview”

By searching that, you will search both phrases. Remember the quotes tip above? It’s being used here as well. In this instance, these two exact phrases will be searched. It can be done by word too, like the example below.

  • chocolate OR white chocolate

This will search for pages that have either chocolate or white chocolate!

10. Search a range of numbers

Searching for a range of numbers is another tip we don’t anticipate a lot of people using. The people that do use it, though, will probably use it quite a bit. People interested in money or statistics will find this tip particularly useful. Essentially, you use two dots and a number to let Google search know you’re looking for a specific range of numbers. Like the syntax below.

  • What teams have won the Stanley Cup ..2004
  • 41..43

In the first instance, the search will toss back the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2004. The two dots with only one number will tell the search that you don’t need anything before or after 2004. This can help narrow down searches to a specific number to improve search results. In the second, Google will search for the numbers 41, 42, and 43. It is obscure, but wildly useful if you happen to need to search for numbers like this.

11. Keep it simple

Now we’re getting into the general tips. Google search knows how to search for a lot of things. What this means is you don’t need to be too specific. If you need a pizza place nearby, use this to search.

  • Pizza places nearby

Google search will grab your location and deliver a variety of results about pizza places that are near you.

12. Gradually add search terms

There will come a time when Google search doesn’t shovel out the results you expect. In this instance, keeping it simple may not be the best option. As Google itself suggests, the best method is to start with something simple then gradually get more complicated. See the example below.

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  • First try: job interviews
  • Second try: prepare for job interviews
  • Third try: how to prepare for a job interview

This will gradually refine the search to bring you fewer, more targeted terms. The reason you don’t go straight from the first try to the third try is because you may miss what you’re looking for by skipping the second step. Millions of websites phrase the same information in a number of different ways; using this technique lets you search as many of them as possible to find the best info.

13. Use words that websites would use

This is a very important one. When people use Google search to hunt the web, they generally search for things using the same language that they would use for speaking. Unfortunately, websites don’t say things the way people do; instead, they try to use language that sounds professional. Let’s look at some examples.

  • “I have a flat tire” could be replaced by “repair a flat tire.”
  • “My head hurts” could be replaced by “headache relief.”

The list goes on and on. When searching, try to use terminology you would find on a professional website. This will help you get more reliable results.

14. Use important words only

The way Google search works is to take what you search for and match it with keywords in online content. When you search for too many words, it may limit your results. That means it may actually take you longer to find what you’re looking for. Thus, it is apropos to use only the important words when searching for something. Let’s see an example.

  • Don’t use: Where can I find a Chinese restaurant that delivers.
  • Instead try: Chinese restaurants nearby.
  • Or: Chinese restaurants near me.

Doing this can help Google find what you need without all the clutter. So remember, keep it simple and use important words only.

15. Google search has shortcuts

A number of commands can be entered to give you instantaneous results. Like the math example above, Google can immediately give you the information you need that is displayed right at the top of the search results. This can save time and effort so you don’t have to click a bunch of bothersome links. Here are a few examples of some commands you can enter into Google.

  • Weather *zip code* – This will show you the weather in the given zip code. You can also use town and city names instead of area codes, but it may not be as accurate if there are multiple area codes in the city.
  • What is *celebrity name* Bacon Number – This is a fun little one that will tell you how many connections any given celebrity has to famed actor Kevin Bacon. The popular joke, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, is that no actor is more than 6 connections away from Kevin Bacon. Mark Zuckerberg has a Bacon Number of 3.
  • The math example posted above is another one.
  • What is the definition of *word* or Define: *word* – This will display the definition of a word.
  • Time *place* – This will display the time in whatever place you type in.
  • You can check any stock by typing its ticker name into Google. If you search for GOOG, it will check the stock prices for Google.

These quick commands can take a web search that is usually multiple clicks and condense it into a single search. This is very helpful for information you need repeatedly.

16. Spelling doesn’t necessarily matter

Google search has gotten a lot smarter over the years. These days, you don’t even need to spell words correctly. As long as it’s pretty close, Google can usually figure out what it means. Here are some examples.

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  • If you search “Nver Gna Gve Yo Up” Google will automatically assume you mean to search for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” If by chance your misspelling was intentional, Google gives you the option to search for the misspelled term instead.

This trick is great if you happen to forget how to spell something or are not altogether sure how something is spelled. It can also be helpful when searching for obscure words. This applies to capitalization and grammar as well.

17. Use descriptive words

Pretty much everything can be described in multiple ways. Take our namesake, the “life hack.” The terminology “hack” refers to a computer programmer breaking security on a network or system. However, when used in conjunction with the word “life”, it alters the meaning to tips and tricks people can use to improve their lives. If you have trouble finding what you’re searching for, keep in mind that people may search or define what you need in a different way than you do.

  • You may search “How to install drivers in Ubunut?”
  • When you really mean “Troubleshoot driver problems Ubuntu.”

There really isn’t a good specific example for this one. If you search for something and you can’t find an answer, try asking the same question using different words and see if that helps the results.

18. Find a specific file

An often forgotten feature of Google search is the ability to search for a specific file or file type. This can be infinitely useful if you need a specific PDF or PowerPoint file that you previously viewed or need to use for another project. The syntax is quite simple.

  • *Search term here* filetype:pdf

In the above example, you simply replace the search term with whatever you’re searching for. Then use the filetype command and enter the extension of any file type you can think of. This can mostly be useful for scholarly purposes, but business presentations and other assorted presentations can benefit from this kind of search as well.

19. Money and unit conversions

Google search can quickly and accurately convert both measurement units and currency value. There are a variety of uses for this, like checking to see the conversion rate between two currencies. If you happen to be a math student, you can use it to convert from feet to meters or from ounces to liters. Here’s how to do it.

  • miles to km – This will convert miles to kilometers. You can put numbers in front to convert a certain number. Like “10 miles to km” will show you how many kilometers are in 10 miles.
  • USD to British Pound Sterling – This will convert a US dollar to British pounds. Like the measurements above, you can add numbers to find exact conversions for a certain amount of money.

It’s true that this tip is geared toward math students and international business people. However, you’d be surprised how often these tips are used by regular people.

20. Track your packages

Our last trick is to use Google search to find out where your packages are. You can enter any UPS, USPS, or Fedex tracking number directly into the Google search bar, and it’ll show you the tracking information about your package. This is much easier than going to the specific sites, waiting for them to load, then searching for your packages there. No examples are really needed for this one. Just type your tracking number in and see where your package is.

Google Search wrap-up

Google search is a very powerful search tool. Using the tips outlined above, you can find anything and everything you could ever need on the World Wide Web. Whether it’s avoiding Wikipedia for a school essay project, finding the latest stock prices, or even finding song lyrics, there is a way to make Google search work for you.

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