Tuesday, October 2, 2012

My Complete Guide to Staying Safe and Anonymous Online, Part 1 of 2

This was the most ridiculous "scary hacker" picture I could find. Hackers 1) are
probably not as fit as this dude, in general; 2) would never wear a ski mask while
hacking, because that would be really silly, 3) would never try to use a touchpad
with a clawed hand, and 4) probably wouldn't be using an Apple computer.
Stock photo fail. Source.

My previous post on VPNs made me think that it would be a good idea and a valuable public service to outline to everyone exactly how I stay safe and anonymous online, as well as keep all my files safely backed up online - mostly for free! I’m a pretty savvy computer user, and I realize not everyone is - and many people out there will likely not have heard of a few of these tips and tricks below.

I’m writing this guide mostly as a step-by-step process, because in order to be safe, secure, and anonymous, you need to start from scratch - it’s possible that your computer has some sort of spyware installed (that you either know about or you don’t), and spyware by its very nature make you less safe and anonymous online. I’m also writing this guide for Windows users, since 1) most people out there are Windows users, and 2) if you’re using Linux, a Mac, or other, you can find similar programs to the below yourself.

At least you don't have to reinstall Windows 7 every few months to keep it running smoothly,
like you did with every other version of Windows ever made.

So, first step - reinstall Windows on your computer, from scratch.

[You have all your stuff backed up already, right? So reinstalling Windows from scratch is easy to do, right? I know the answer for many of you is “no,” wait until tomorrow's post (which includes how to do proper backups), back up your stuff properly, and then return to this step.]

Second step - download all the updates for Windows. May seem obvious, but some people don’t bother to do it. There will be a ton of them, so go get a coffee or something - it will take a while.

Third step - good antivirus and firewall software. Microsoft’s own antivirus software is actually quite excellent - it’s free and it’s what I use - and I’m a huge fan of Comodo’s firewall, which is also free. Download them and install them.

OK, so now we’ve got the basics - a relatively secure computer system upon which to build. Here’s where things get more interesting.

Fourth step - download and install a decent browser. I prefer Chrome, but Firefox or Opera are also good choices. All these browsers have a number of privacy-enhancing features, such as the ability to browse without leaving behind any trace of your browsing habits, the ability to clear all of your cookies and temporary files automatically or on-demand, etc.

Fifth step - enable two-factor authentication for your Gmail account. If you don’t have a Gmail account, get one. Having two-factor authentication for your primary email account is absolutely key to staying secure online.

Sixth step - now we start to get into the “anonymous” part of “staying safe and anonymous online.” Add the extension Disconnect to Chrome - this wonderful extension prevents third parties from tracking your browsing online, and it also anonymizes your Google searches automatically.

Optional add-ons for the sixth step - there are a few other addons for Chrome that give additional protection, but they are a little more intrusive and require a little more hands-on management. If you’re up to it, I recommend Adblock Plus, KB SSL Enforcer, and Kill Evil (you can Google those if you’re interested in any of them). Adblock Plus blocks ads (surprise, surprise), while SSL Enforcer forces sites to load over SSL if possible, and Kill Evil disables intrusive and malicious javascripts from loading on web pages. WARNING: these addons (especially SSL Enforcer and Kill Evil) can disable functionality on some websites, so they have to be manually disabled on some websites to make the websites usable. I can understand that this may be too much work for some people, but if you can manage these addons, they’ll make your browsing safer.

So, that's got us a secure computer, secure email, and a decent way to browse the internet. Tomorrow, we'll get into protecting all the rest of your online accounts, as well as backing up your files properly.

P.S. This is the second blog post I've written in the new Blogger interface, and I hate hate hate it. Why oh why do internet companies feel the need to break their app interfaces every few months?


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