Privacy Tools That Help You Protect Your Personal Data

Services like DuckDuckGo, ProtonMail, and Signal allow you to have a digital life without sharing too much info

privacy tools Giacomo Bagnara

Facebook, Google, and other tech giants are so adept at tracking our every move via our electronic devices that it can be hard to imagine escaping their digital surveillance. But Americans are getting savvier about protecting their personal info, too.

According to a recent Consumer Reports survey,* 60 percent now bar mobile apps from accessing the camera, GPS data, and contact list on their phones. And half protect their online accounts with two-factor authentication.

If you're ready to get serious about safeguarding your data, here are some privacy-friendly alternatives to Google's search engine and Gmail, and Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service.

Search Savvy: DuckDuckGo

Each time you do a web search using Google, the company archives the details of that search, alongside data on your web-browsing history, to help target you with personalized ads. (The company serves ads to millions of sites, and it can note each time you go to those sites, too.) With DuckDuckGo, you can avoid that tracking. The search engine delivers the info you request without building a user profile, generating revenue by showing you ads related only to that single query. Type in “women’s running shoes” and appropriate ads pop up on DuckDuckGo’s results page—and nowhere else.

Encrypted Email: ProtonMail

Free email services, such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail, may scan your communications for anything from ad targeting to integrating mail with other apps.

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If that turns you off, consider shifting to ProtonMail. The service offers end-to-end encryption, which makes the contents off-limits to anyone but you and the recipient. Better yet, ProtonMail doesn’t collect data on its users. In fact, you don’t need to provide any personal info to register for an account.

Drawbacks? The encryption hinders inbox searches. The 500-megabyte storage limit for the free service is low. And if you forget your password, you’re in trouble: ProtonMail is so hands-off, it can’t help you reaccess your emails.

Better Messaging: Signal

This isn’t the only messaging app to provide end-to-end encryption, scrambling data so that only the sender and recipient can read the contents. But Signal—available on Android phones, iPhones, and desktops—stands out for several reasons. It lets you send messages that self-delete from both parties’ phones (though the recipient could preserve the contents in a screenshot). And according to its creators, the service does not store your user name, location, or data related to your contact list—info that others, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, can use for marketing. Signal has even tested a feature that lets you encrypt other metadata, so would-be snoops can’t identify who wrote the texts.

Concerned about who's watching you? CR shares easy and effective ways to take more control of your digital privacy.

How Targeted Ads Work

Do you often see online ads that relate to your likes and hobbies? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Thomas Germain explains to host Jack Rico what targeted ads are and how they work.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.