Privacy Through Browser & VPN Separation

What do you do when you need to “lower your shields” for a minute to complete a purchase on Amazon, or tell Google that yes, it’s you who’s trying to access that one Google Doc you always forget to migrate over? I asked this question on Mastodon a few weeks ago, and the answers inspired me to write this post.

For most browsing online, I use Firefox with strict privacy settings. These include:

  1. Blocking cross-site cookies, Fingerprinting, Cryptominers (does anyone ever turn this on?) and tracking content.
  2. Deleting all cookies and site data whenever Firefox closes
  3. Clearing all history when Firefox closes
  4. Turning off all logs and “studies” Mozilla collects
  5. Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin plugins.

I also use EWW, Emacs-built-in browser, especially when writing blog posts or reading. It offers good no-tracking protection and can get around most annoying “please pay us” banners that hide half content.

However, online services such as my bank or Amazon don’t play nice with smartypants privacy advocates who hide behind a VPN and an un-cookied browser. Yes, you can work around that, jumping through captchas and 2FA SMSs and whatnot. At the end of the day though, it’s nothing more than an annoyance: it’s not like my bank doesn’t know who I am, and Amazon has my entire address book history.

Sometimes, I need to pretend to be a normal guy. Someone who thinks cookies come with chocolate chips (or oatmeal and raisins) and addresses only come with a street name and a building number.

For this scenario I use Brave Browser without VPN. With my VPN provider, Mullvad, I can do this by running the command mullvad-exclude brave-browser (where brave-browser can be any app I wish). It’s easy enough to create a “launcher” on my desktop1 (what would be considered a shortcut in Windows) with this integrated command, so all I have to do is to double-click:

The Brave (no VPN) Launcher shows both on the Desktop and inside the programs menu

Another helpful habit I’ve developed over time is to place Brave on another virtual desktop to the right. I “swish” to it with ctrl + alt → which makes a noticeable sound and animation when I do (hence the “swish”). This is a good hint that I’m now in the “no VPN zone.” Besides financials and shopping, I also use Brave for work-related functions (no need to hide my IP address from work) and Gmail. When I’m done, I close it and let these spy-sites keep their precious cookies and history so they won’t bother me next time. Meanwhile, they track nothing from my other activities on the net. This is pretty effective, judging from the limited scope of ads I get.

Footnotes


  1. My desktop environment is Cinnamon, the Linux-Mint version of Gnome. KDE also launcher, though they might function differently. ↩︎


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