Last week, users brought a $5 billion class-action suit against Google, claiming the digital giant misled them by tracking their activity when they used the browser’s “incognito” mode. Since the incognito mode’s browser tab clearly states that web sites can still track you in incognito mode, the lawsuit seems to be more of an expression of users’ frustration with Google’s constant monitoring of their online lives than anything else.
Private browsing or incognito mode sounds promising to those interested in keeping their browsing private, but usually that setting simply prevents others using the same device from being able to access your browsing information. It doesn’t prevent sites from tracking your browsing as you move across the web.
As awareness of the extent to which we are tracked and how we are tracked grows among casual users of technology, it is clear that some services that market themselves as “private browsers”—and the search engines you can pair them with—are anything but private. (But not all! Mozilla Firefox browser and DuckDuckGo search engine are just two examples of truly privacy-obsessed tools that work great together! And swap out your free Google Gmail account that is so up in your business that it actually finishes your sentences as you type with the private, encrypted ProtonMail!)
By now, most folks realize that they are tracked not just on one site at a time, but across sites, from shopping to social media and then on to their banking site. However, if you choose to forego proactively protecting your privacy online, you may fall victim to grave consequences, such as identity theft or other fraudulent crimes.
The Perils of Mixing Business with Leisure
Recently, I was asked about the practice of using two browsers to safeguard privacy and limit tracking. That is, using one browser for general browsing and another for sites requiring credential use (“signing in”), or using one browser for personal use and another for professional use, for those using one device for both work and personal purposes.
First, let’s just say that mixing work and personal business is never a good thing. Using one set of devices for work and personal use is a common practice for freelancers, consultants, lean startup entrepreneurs, and other solopreneurs with tight budgets. But, for those who are not self-employed and don’t want their employer knowing all of their personal business, it is crucial that you do not use work devices for personal affairs, and vice versa.
But, if you must use one set of devices for both personal and work business, rather than juggle two browsers (which would offer limited separation of business/personal online activities), I would encourage those interested in this level of security to consider implementing containers in a secure browser. Mozilla Firefox containers prevent the sharing of information between your browsing and online business activities. When partnered with a secure VPN, your online life gains a new level of privacy and security.
How Do Containers Work?
Sites track you in a number of different ways, the simplest of which is the cookie, so let’s use that example. Sites you visit leave cookies (little bits of data) on your computer. That’s how sites remember you when you return, which can be handy, but it’s also how they track your movement across the internet and know your physical location. While a site knowing one’s personal tastes and shopping habits may appear benign, would you like a site to know your banking and medical information? Why risk your personal information with no reward for doing so?
When all of these cookies live in one place, they create a digital footprint. The specificity of the data and the volume can combine to create a very specific unique profile, a digital fingerprint. It’s like a mosaic, where one tile on its own is of little consequence, but many tiles together create a complete picture. In this case, the picture is of you, your financial life, your personal life, your work life…so you can see how this fingerprint, unsecured and shared across the web, poses a privacy and security risk to you.
[Want to learn what data of yours is on the dark web and why that’s a problem? Read Have You Been Pwned? Probably Yes, So Here’s What You Do]
Containers keep these cookies separated in their own jars, minimizing your fingerprint. Firefox offers two popular container extensions: a Facebook container and a multi-account container. The former quarantines Facebook, preventing it from snooping on your other online work and browsing. The multi-account container can be used to contain Facebook and, as the name implies, other applications as well.
The app provides four default containers: personal, work, shopping, and banking. These color-coded labels can be changed and additional containers added depending on your needs. For example, I employ a system that separates browsing and credential-based sites: I browse for work in one container, but I open my work accounts requiring log-ins in a second container (e.g., Twitter, Buffer, Medium, etc.) and have individual containers for Google and Amazon (the ultra-snoopy are not allowed to mingle). (Unofficial forks of the official Facebook container specific to Twitter, Google, etc. also exist. Be sure you trust any unofficial add-on before installing it. You can find a list of Firefox container add-ons here.)
For the container system to work, users need to conscientiously employ them. Firefox has made containers easy to use consistently.
- When configuring the extension, select the option “Select a container for each new tab.”
- When you open a new tab, select a container for the site from the drop-down list of containers that automatically appears.
- Easily assign commonly used sites to automatically open in a specific container. Click on the container icon in the browser’s ribbon when the site is open in a container and select “always open in [name of the container].”
Rather than accepting the cards we’ve been dealt, it’s important that we take initiative to mitigate the negative effect our digital footprint may have on our lives. Follow best practices, like using anti-virus protection, two-factor authentication, and unique, secure passwords. (This site is full of easy-to-implement, inexpensive or free tools and simple behaviors that will keep you safe. So stay a while and browse…we don’t track you!) Mozilla Firefox containers are easy and free, and their use is easy to learn. Your online privacy and security are worth the effort.
Know of other easy ways to keep invasive sites and apps in their own lane? Add them to the comments below!