It takes work to keep your data private online. These apps can help

Take off that tinfoil hat and try one of these privacy tools instead.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read

There's a handful of tools you can use to help protect your personal information online. 

James Martin/CNET

If you're paranoid about companies and governments potentially tracking you online, you're not crazy. And there's something you can do to stop it.

The spotlight on online privacy has become much more focused in recent months, what with headline after headline about breaches and data scandals. Meanwhile, a series of leaks over the past few years exposed different ways that governments hack our phones, TVs and PCs. And Facebook has been blanketed with fallout from a widening scandal, in which a data analytics firm called Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained information on 87 million people without their permission

All these revelations have led people to question how much data major companies like Facebook and Google -- and even new companies like MoviePass -- collect on them. 

Some people have begun to take action. The European Union's new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which kicks into effect on Friday, requires companies to be more upfront about what data they collect and to ask permission before sharing it. 

But there are many dangers online that GDPR might not protect you from. 

Luckily, there are tools out there to make sure your data isn't even collected in the first place. We've compiled a list of the most useful tools for protecting your privacy online:

Assess yourself

Panopticlick: If your browser isn't safe, you're in trouble. So how do you know if it's safe?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a tool called Panopticlick, which tests how protected your browser is against web tracking. While the tool launched in 2010, the EFF added a feature in 2015 to also see how well your tracking blockers work.

Websites across the internet are laced with trackers, often used by advertisers so they know how to target ads to you based on the pages you've visited. Panopticlick simulates some of that tracking software and shows what they can find.

Protect yourself

Brave browser: One option is to change your browser. The Brave browser is a free app from a startup that offers private tabs using the Tor Project's network identity-hiding technology.

That means it provides protection against all sorts of tracking, including internet service providers, which can track your online behavior and sell that information to advertisers without asking for permission.

With Brave, instead of the ISPs seeing your traffic, they would get encrypted traffic heading to countries like the Netherlands or regions like the Middle East and Asia instead.

Privacy Badger: This is a free browser add-on for Chrome, Firefox and Opera, also created by the EFF, that blocks trackers and spying ads.

Even if pages like Facebook had those trackers, you'd still be able to access the social network without being tracked across sites.

While there are many similar tools, such as Ghostery, the EFF's add-on blocks trackers based on activity it sees, not a blacklist like many others rely on. It looks for tracking techniques in the code, so it can constantly learn and adapt.

"If a site that was innocuous yesterday started tracking you tomorrow, then Privacy Badger can learn that pretty quickly," said Bennett Cyphers, an engineer on the EFF's Tech Projects team.

DuckDuckGo: If you're uncomfortable with using Google, there are alternatives you may not have heard of. DuckDuckGo was created as a privacy-focused alternative to the search giant. 

The website promises not to collect or share user's information and allows for anonymous searches. DuckDuckGo boasts 20 million private searches a day, according to its website.

The privacy-focused search engine also has a mobile app and a browser extension available. It still serves ads, but DuckDuckGo doesn't do it by tracking users -- rather through keywords in your searches.

Cookies Autodelete:Websites recognize your device through cookies, which is why your log-in information is already filled in when you visit certain pages. That can also help companies know how to track you since it knows who's visiting.

Cookies Autodelete is an add-on for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox that deletes any cookies that aren't being used anytime you close the tab on your browser. It also allows you to customize your settings so websites you trust can keep the cookies. You can also clear all cookies for specific domains, for the websites that you don't trust.

While Privacy Badger prevents third-party tracking, a tool like Cookies Autodelete can help prevent direct tracking from websites.

Message safely

Signal: There are plenty of encrypted-messaging tools out there like WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) and Telegram (which researchers have found isn't secure), but Signal is often the most recommended one, and for good reason.

The free messaging service offers encrypted and private messages, which means that snoops aren't able to spy on your texts. Signal also doesn't store user data, so government agencies can't demand your messages.

You're also able to set it up so all your messages disappear within a time limit. If you're concerned that Signal might be spying secretly, the app's codes are open-sourced, meaning anyone can take a look at how it works and warn about vulnerabilities or offer new ideas to make it even more secure.  

Hey, it's good enough for the whistleblower Edward Snowden.

GDPR: All you need about Europe's new privacy law going into effect May 25.

More about GDPR: All of CNET's stories about changing privacy rules in Europe.