The best free privacy software
You don’t need to be Edward Snowden to want privacy protection; you might not like your entire life mined by advertisers, you might be planning to sell a hard drive and want to wipe its contents, or you might want to keep your personal information secure when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot.
The apps here cover everything from secure web browsing to secure file erasing, and we’ve also included tools to make Windows 10 less nosey, and a completely secure OS that you can run from a USB drive.
A special version of Firefox that diverts data through a network of nodes to protect your privacy
The Tor network (short for The Onion Router, which describes its multi-layered privacy technology) was designed to enable anonymous internet browsing, and the Firefox-based Tor Browser is by far the quickest and simplest way to start using it.
You browse the web as normal, and the browser uses thousands of relays to disguise where your data’s coming from, and provided you practise safe surfing – something the browser warns you about; it can only do so much to protect your privacy if you’re sharing personal information online – it delivers secure browsing that’s only slightly slower than normal. It’s also handy for accessing geoblocked sites that block IP addresses from specific countries.
Tor Browser is our most highly recommended piece of privacy software, and the tools below can supplement its safeguards to keep your activities even more discreet.
CyberGhost is an excellent free VPN tool that’s ideal for regular file-sharers
CyberGhost VPN is a virtual private network app that re-routes your internet traffic to hide your location and identity, and it’s clearly targeted at torrent users and people who want to access geo-blocked services.
The privacy software has six elements: anonymous browsing, unblocking streaming sites, protecting your internet connection, torrenting anonymously, unblocking websites and choosing which VPN server to use, but the free version is ad-supported and runs much more slowly than the paid-for premium service.
Prevent tracking cookies monitoring your browsing and reporting back to advertisers
You may not realise it, but your surfing habits are probably being tracked by dozens of websites keen to sell you their products. These tracking cookies are not malicious, but you may not want Amazon and friends collecting your data and knowing exactly what you’re thinking of buying. That’s where Ghostery comes in. It’s available for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Android and iOS, and its job is to block the various tracking systems that attempt to follow you around the internet to sell you stuff.
You can simply install the privacy software and let it get on with its job, but looking at each site’s Ghostery report is a real eye-opener: some sites have so many different trackers and advertising networks it’s a miracle their pages ever load. Ghostery also tells you exactly what each company is looking at and likely to do with your data, so if you’d rather not share every click with marketers, its a must-have.
Avoid hidden keyloggers by spoofing keypresses to protect your valuable login details
KeyScrambler Personal is a tiny app (under 1.5MB) designed to do just one thing: encrypt every letter you type into your web browser to prevent it being intercepted by keylogging software. The free version supports 38 different browsers (but not Microsoft Edge at the time of writing), but other kinds of apps such as email, instant messaging and online gaming require the paid-for versions of the product.
If you worry about keylogging or suspect that you’re being logged whenever you type, this free privacy software is a good way to frustrate the watchmen.
Windows 10 uses personal data to improve user experience. If you’d rather it didn’t, try AntiSpy
Windows 10 is the most personal version of Windows yet, with lots of convenient features and the Cortana personal assistant, but Microsoft’s efforts to get to know you better have alarmed many privacy activists, who believe that the OS gathers far too much data about you.
If you share their concerns, there’s free privacy software designed to limit the data that Windows 10 gathers. One of the most straightforward is Ashampoo AntiSpy For Windows 10, which enables you to disable advertising IDs, SmartScreen filtering, whether apps can access your camera and so on.
Free privacy software with open source encryption for your most important files and emails
GnuPG is short for GNU Privacy Guard, and it’s the open source version of the venerable PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) tool for encrypting files and emails.
It enables you to encrypt and digitally sign data and documents with technology that’s effectively unbreakable, and although GnuPG itself is a command line client (so you’d run it in a DOS window) there are dozens of programs that wrap its encryption in a more welcoming environment, such as Claws Mail and Kleopatra (pictured above).
If you’re sharing data that simply can’t fall into the wrong hands, GnuPG is an important tool.
Not just a browser – Tails is a whole operating system dedicated to your privacy
Rather than try to patch an existing operating system, wouldn’t it be great if you could have an OS that was designed with privacy in mind? That’s what Tails offers, in a package small enough to run from a USB drive or SD card.
The free privacy software bundle is based on Debian GNU/Linux and includes a browser, instant messaging, email and office apps, all of which have been configured specifically to protect your privacy. As the Tails website puts it, you can use it anywhere and leave no trace. Edward Snowden says it’s great.
Sharing a PC with others? Keep them out of your personal files with Wide Folder Hider
Designed for Windows XP onwards, free privacy software Wise Folder Hider does what the name suggests: it hides things on your PC. The free edition enables you to hide files and folders (both locally and on USB drives) and to password-protect them, although it doesn’t encrypt anything; for that you’ll need the $19.95 Pro version.
If all you need is a way to hide work files from the kids, or the novel you’re working on from the boss, then it’s a good little app, although if you’re truly paranoid you’ll want to invest in the Pro version to scramble the files as well as hiding them.