Think Your Web Browsing is Really Private? Think Again

How anonymous is your private web browsing? I thought I had all the reasonable requisite Add-ons to keep me fairly anonymous on the Web. Then I read a comment in an article about a file named: ‘machine-id’ which holds all the data about the computer I am using. Machine-id is present on a Windows and Linux computers. It is around in some variation on a Mac, but not as easy to locate.

What this little file does is make your a single computer unique on the ‘Lan’ it is set up on. This information may extend out into the internet to your provider, and perhaps beyond, but in my limited searching, I did not find any reference of that happening. This is called from my understanding…get ready…”Fingerprinting”.

However this made me curious. What else is going out, while I am browsing the web, thinking I am wisely protecting my privacy? I can’t say I was surprised, but a truckload of information is sent to each and every website that is visited, even this one I am guessing, though I never see it.

If you look at this screenshot, Firefox.jpg, you will see the information every web site sees. The list is long, and the shot is clipped to only the top portion, but you get the idea of how privately you browse the web as an average user. Web browsers may as well include a picture, home address and phone number too, as far as privacy matters go.

I thought I was fairly anonymous on the web…

Contained in Firefox browser directory, and likely whatever browser you choose to use is a file called HTTPS. Now this is a really slick little file that works with web sites you visit. It stores the data you see which tells Firefox any site listed in the file can only be accessed using HTTPS at the beginning of the url for a ‘secure’ connection. If HTTP isn’t at the beginning of the URL string, you can’t connect to the website in question. Sounds great, I feel so much better….

The problem with this file is, you can delete the contents and save it as a blank file. Get on the web and surf to a few sites, and you have a long list of sites, including some you did not access and can not visit! Return to a website, and the string contents change My question is, with this file blank, I do not seem to have any problem accessing a website. Why is it needed except for tracking purposes? I think it uses information from machine-id, but I’m not really sure. Monster Cookies anyone?

HTTPS. Just a helpful little file

I never payed attention to the private browsing option until now. The results are disappointing if you think you are really getting private browsing. This is beginning to look like a bad take of, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. All that happens in private browsing is the information normally stored on your computer about your browsing habits is not collected. To the sites you don’t want the world to know you visited, your browser sends the same information it always does. In essence, your family or Boss may not know where you browsed, but everyone else does.

If you want to see this in action, here are two links which collect all the information possible from your computer.

My Browser Info

Panopticlick from Electronic Frontier Foundation

After a quick search, I found a new well thought of web browser named, Epic Browser. It has a slick little VPN feature that really does erase you when you are on the web. I only played with it long enough to verify it works. With the VPN switch turned off, Epic transmits the same information as other browsers. With the VPN switch activated, it’s like being on the onion network with a tor browser. Maybe it is?

If you are serious about your privacy, but not too computer savvy

Which brings me to the Operating System Tails. Tails is so paranoid about privacy it only runs from a USB stick, and does not access any hard drive on the computer on its own. Tails uses the Tor browser and the Onion network. I really prefer using Tails when I want to surf about things I don’t want attached to me like, “How do you get Hemorrhoids”, or some such. You can browse with confidence knowing in your using the best privacy no money can buy when you are on the web. Below is a screenshot of how the sites see me when using tails. This isn’t a how-to about tails, but the web is almost your friend and will lead you to the Tails website.

The most online privacy no money can buy.

The information above is what I was able to find in about an hours worth of searching. Initially I was shocked to see what information about myself and my computer was giving away. After a short amount of time, I became angry, that so much information is built into the system by default. I did learn I don’t need to feel bad when a web site wants me to accept cookies. Websites already have more information than they need.

In wrapping up, I hope you have a better idea of your “privacy” when browsing the Internet. If you want to learn more and perhaps get involved, the, “Electronic Frontier Foundation” is a great place to start. EFF has been around since at least 1990, decries the lack of privacy in the digital age, and fights for our digital rights.

Here is the Electronic Frontier Foundation link:  Electronic Frontier Foundation check them out. They do a lot for you.

Easy Linux Distro Hopping – Thunderbird and Firefox

One of the good/bad things about Linux is distro hopping. Distro hopping means trying out different distributions of Linux as the mood hits, or an exciting new distribution appears. Some people change Linux distributions monthly. Other people less often. Some people not at all.

A few people have their favorite distribution and try out other Linux distributions on the side, so to speak. I am one of those people. For me the Linux distribution I am using is possibly not as great as the new distro I will take for a test drive. I do not want to miss out.

One of the downsides to jumping Linux distributions is email and web browser settings. Email because I either have to keep email on the server, or I have to ensure I do not need any emails in the old distribution before I delete it for the next latest and greatest Linux Distribution.

There is an easy fix however, if you use Mozilla products which I am a big fan of. I prefer Thunderbird for my email and Firefox as my web browser. If you are using either or both of these, distro jumping becomes much less painful.

This post is for the new distro hoppers. A How To for easily moving your Firefox and Thunderbird email, address book and settings to your newest distro. This works for popular distros as of June 2014.

With [most] Linux distros, all your files are kept in your home directory. Your email, and your browser settings are stored as invisible files in your home directory. This is how Linux keeps everything right in the case of multiple users on a computer.

Each user or account has their own home directory where their personal files are stored.  This makes distro jumping easy. When you want to either try out a Linux distribution or try out a second distribution, keeping your email and browser settings is a fairly simple process.

In your file manager, no matter which manager you have is a setting in preferences for viewing hidden files. This needs to be checked because you want to view hidden files – temporarily.

After setting the hidden files switch, when you look at you home directory, you will see a number of files that have a period in front of the folder name. These are hidden folders. Most folders contain settings and other information for the user based software you have installed.  There are a number of hidden folders, and they tend to clutter up the file manager, so they are hidden and not viewed by default.

Two of these hidden folders you are most interested in are: .mozilla and .thunderbird. These two folders contain all your Thunderbird and Firefox email and settings.

Your new distribution needs to have Thunderbird and Firefox installed. If they are not present, install them both before proceeding.  Copy these two folders, .mozilla and .thunderbird, from your old home folder to your new home folder. Your file manager will warn you that these folders exist and do you want to replace them. Choose: yes.

Tat is all there is to it. I did one jump recently where this did not work for Thunderbird, not sure why. What I did was create my accounts in Thunderbird, and then close Thunderbird before allowing to to check of new email. When I reopened Thunderbird, my old emails, address book, etc were all present.