Tools, toys, and being productive (part 2)

11 Aug 2020

So, in my first part of my tools post I discussed some of my favourite tools in general. For the next part, I'm going to zone in tools in a more specific area: privacy and security.

I, like millions of others, am invested in the Google ecosystem. My mobile phone, my email, my calendar, my office documents, my photos, my mapping; pretty much everything Google do, I use. With one exception.


I don't (and won't) use Chrome to browse the web. You could argue that I've already jumped into Google's ecosystem with both feet - I pay them every month for family plans for storage and YouTube premium etc - but there's something about total and complete immersion that I've always held back from, and using their browser is where I've drawn the line. This stems from more than one reason:

  1. I don't believe in giving the biggest market player any more share - at somewhere around 70% of the market, Google aren't going to miss me anyway
  2. I do have a soft spot in rooting for the little guy - and my browser of choice is definitely an underdog
  3. As someone with a keen interest in technology - and who saw what the Internet Explorer dominance did years ago - I believe in the need for multiple browser engines
  4. Customisation. A vanilla browser experience isn't for me, and as will be seen in the points below, it's important to me to be able to install some key extensions - and if my browser can reinforce this, even better.

But before I discuss my favourite browser and extensions, I'm going to mention a fantastic hardware/software combo that is a staple of my home network.


Say goodbye to internet advertisements, malware and the like. In their own words, PiHole is "Network-wide Ad Blocking: A black hole for Internet advertisements" but it's so much more than that if you really want to take advantage. My Pihole - despite the name - is running on my home server (running Linux), not a Raspberry Pi. Any old computer you have lying around is likely capable of becoming a PiHole and delivering hassle free internet to your household. But whilst the lack of ads is a massive improvement on your everyday browsing, it's the more advanced features such as being able to blacklist entire domains that I feel people should be taking advantage of: as an example, in my house you simply cannot access the Daily Heil Daily Fail Daily Mail website, as that rag (amongst others) is on the blacklist. Via the power of community-maintained blocklists, I'm also filtering out known malware, ads and trackers from across the web, whilst white-listing some domains that I need to keep things functional (such as the various Xbox One related domains that Microsoft maintain). Once you've witnessed the amount of absolute filth that apps such as TikTok are performing - calling home to tracking domains - it's obvious that you should want to have a network level filter.

Alongside the filtering, PiHole can act as the DHCP server for your network, and has reports and graphs of everything it does, if that's your sort of thing.

PiHole is a great hobby project for someone to dive into, that offers real, tangible results when complete. Get started (and if you can, donate) at their website here.


So, with the discussion about PiHole out of the way - and confirmation that there's already some network-level optimisation happening - how do I suggest people consume the internet on their devices?

The answer to that question, for me, has been Mozilla Firefox for as long as I can remember.

I've already mentioned my feelings about rooting for the little guy and disdain at the state of Internet Explorer (yes, I'm old) - this was really at play when in my first tech job in my very early twenties, I discovered that different browsers were feasible and the world didn't need to be locked behind that blue "e" logo.

The fact that this alternative browser was small, fast, and had such legendary new features as "tabs" (this is hilarious, now) was the real reason to switch; that it could be customised in pretty much any way you wanted was the icing on the cake.

Firefox calls this customisation "Add-Ons" but other browsers call them "Extensions" - it amounts to the same thing; some additional code that adds or changes a feature in a way you like. Maybe just a theme, or something like a complete overhaul of your tab positioning. If you can think of it, there's usually an extension for it. Three key extensions that I insist on having, are:

uBlock Origin

There has been something of a turf war between the various adblocking extensions; Ad Block Plus (ABP) was the clear number one for a long time, then got gradually more bloated and slow to the point where I went looking for an alternative. uBlock Origin is the de-facto number one ad blocker add-on nowadays, and with good reason. Fast, widely supported and frequently updated, this is like having PiHole in your pocket, as you can't always be on a network that has a PiHole.

Available for multiple browsers, the Firefox version is here.

Privacy Badger

Privacy Badger is an extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that aims to block tracking cookies, so you are not followed around the web. For example, if you don't already know, the cancer that is Facebook (never had an account, I can say that) uses cookies and their social media "Like" buttons that you see on pretty much every article you read (but not this one!) to build a profile about your browsing. Read a tech article on The Verge, then wander over to Polygon for some gaming news? Not only have Vox (the owners of The Verge/Polygon) now got an idea on your interests, but tracking cookies from Facebook and others are building a profile of you too, primarily so that they can target you with more accurate ads by selling your details. Privacy Badger stops this activity in its tracks by preventing 3rd-party cookies from interacting with your browser.

In their own words, "If an advertiser seems to be tracking you across multiple websites without your permission, Privacy Badger automatically blocks that advertiser from loading any more content in your browser. To the advertiser, it's like you suddenly disappeared."

Privacy Badger is also available cross-browser like uBlock Origin; the Firefox version can be installed from here.

HTTPS Everywhere

Another add-on from the EFF, HTTPS Everywhere upgrades your connection to sites to https automatically. If you browse to a site via http and a known https version is available, your connection is transparently upgraded. Privacy and security for free, you just install and go, there is no complicated setup or similar.

As per the other add-ons I've mentioned so far, HTTPS Everywhere is also cross-browser; the Firefox version can be installed from here.


Bitwarden is my password manager of choice. Everyone should have a password manager in my eyes, or at the very least some form of password scheme (this is going to be the topic of a future post). Bitwarden has everything I need and is an absolute steal for their annual subscription. Money very well spent, I feel.

As is par for the course, Bitwarden is also cross-browser; the Firefox version can be installed from here whilst their homepage is here.

Firefox has continued to add features over the years, with recent improvements including picture-in-picture video and a complete overhaul of the handling of tracking; I look forward to one day needing even fewer extensions installed as the browser does it out-of-the-box, as it were, but the extensions here are a brilliant start to you taking back control of your own details.

Firefox is available from the Mozilla website for all platforms - including your phone. Infact, the very fact that these extensions can be used on mobile is another key reason I avoid Chrome - my phone doesn't feel like a second-class citizen in comparison to my PCs.

Hopefully these two posts have inspired you to check out some of the tools I mention. If they're new to you, try them and see if you become more productive; you will be more secure!

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