5 Things I did to improve my online life

As the apparently –and unfortunately– discontinued Firefox’s IRL Podcast claimed: “Online Life is Real Life”, so these are in fact things I put in practice say in the last two years, that definitely made a difference in my day to day.

Disclaimer: None of the links in this post are affiliated links of any kind nor do I receive anything in exchange for recommending specific products. If I recommend something is just because I use it and I like it.

Use Firefox and uBlock#

I don’t really remember when I started using Chrome as my default browser, but knowing myself I’d bet I was an early adopter, so that means I probably used Chrome for almost 10 years. In Nov 14, 2017, Mozilla announced Firefox Quantum and their marketing people did a pretty good job in convincing me to give it a try. The speed boost and features like the Enhanced Tracking Protection or the Multi-Account Containers made me stay.

Complementing the built-in tracking protection with uBlock (also available for Chrome, by the way) makes browsing the Internet a completely different experience. No more annoying banners, no more Youtube pre-rolls and mid-rolls.

Use a Password Manager and 2FA#

My history with passwords is one of many others. At the beginning of times (that’d be around 1997) I had a 6-char leetspeak password for all my (few) accounts. Starting college they gave me a “strong” 8-char random lowercase password for my dot edu e-mail. As more sites where you should sign up appeared, I even used a weaker one (based on some common movement keys in old Spectrum games, older than WASD ) for non-important stuff.

Complexity requirements popularised and I started using variations or combinations of my passwords until I ended up with maybe 10 or 12 not so different passwords. Put this on top of a couple of e-mail addresses and you got me using the I forgot my password option at almost every login. So I moved to the base + suffix approach. You would have passwords like !gr0RTwow_Facebook or !gr0RTwow_Twitter, maybe good enough on their own, but once one has been owned it doesn’t require Sherlock Holmes to guess your Gmail one.

Then a couple of years ago I started using Bitwarden to generate and store all my passwords. I know many people who use the browser’s built-in remember my password option, but not so many that generates long random passwords on sign up. To me, the main benefit about a standalone password manager over browser’s remember my password are:

  • Compatible across browsers and platforms
  • You can store any kind of secrets (recovery codes, credit cards, licenses…) not just passwords
  • You have access to your passwords everywhere, not just in your devices.
  • You can have shared strong passwords with your family (think Netflix, Amazon…)

And I would totally recommend Bitwarden over 1Password, LastPass and other comercial solutions for two reasons mainly:

  1. It’s open source
  2. You can install your own Bitwarden server on-premises, if needed

Pro-tips

  1. Use a strong master password passphrase

Password Strength, by xkcd

Password Strength, by xkcd

  1. Use double-blind passwords for your critical services
  2. Enable 2FA where it’s available. Prefer an app like Microsoft Authenticator over SMS

Change sign up e-mails to name+service@domain#

I’d say not many people knows that if you own an e-mail address like john.doe@example.com you will also receive any e-mail sent to john.doe+whatever@example.com

Take advantage of this to sign up (or update your current subscriptions) with a different e-mail for every service. If you create an Instagram account, make it john.doe+instagram@example.com. If you subscribe to the New York Times, use john.doe+nytimes@example.com, etc.

This way when you get spam (because you’ll always get spam) you’ll have a better chance to know who leaked/sold your data.

Remove social media from your phone#

Have you ever thought that you spend (waste) too much time scrolling Instagram’s feed? Ever been involved in a stupid Twitter argument that ruined your productivity (and/or your mood)?

If you can relate, I advice to give this a shot: remove the social media apps from your phone. You can go all the way from the beginning or start one by one. I started by removing Facebook (wasn’t even using it that much, to be honest) and Twitter, and after a while I was so happy with the results that I removed Instagram as well (also completely deleted my Facebook account).

What to do instead? Always carry a book, for the long waits, listen to podcasts, audiobooks or just enjoy music. Discover some interesting facts, articles and news by checking Hacker News (not only tech related, regardless of its name) or subscribe to a few newsletters (this seems to be another golden era for them). For starters, I would recommend Winning the Internet a cool project by The Pudding that curates links from other newsletters based on their popularity.

Move away from free critical services#

How many times have you read this quote?

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold

By critical services I mean specially e-mail and cloud storage, and by free I mean mostly Google.

I totally understand that you’re ok with being the product in exchange for services that work as well as Gmail. I mean, I’ve been there. I’m still there, in fact, because I still own a Google Account. But for personal communications or to register to services that I consider critical (banking, password manager, etc.) I have a Soverin account with my custom domain.

Something similar happens with my personal files. I don’t own a computer at this point and I don’t want to store my files in an external drive that will eventually fail. Of course my files include not just personal/family photos, but personal documentation and scans, notes, SSH keys, invoices and other sensitive information. I don’t trust Google anymore to permanently keep all of this for me and that’s why 3 years ago I moved all my files to Tresorit .

Unlike the previous points you don’t see a direct impact in your day to day by using Soverin & Tresorit (or probably any other valid alternatives) instead of Gmail & Drive. But I can tell I feel better.