I’m using an Ubuntu VM for private browsing, and like many people, I’m stuck using a mainstream OS for much of my work (Win7) due to software availability constraints. But some software works much better in a linux environment and Ubuntu is as pretty as OSX, free, and installs easily on generic x86 hardware.
It is also pretty straightforward to install an isolated and secure browsing instance using VirtualBox. It takes about 20G of hard disk and will use up at least 512K (better 1G) of your system RAM. If you want to run this sort of config, your laptop should have more than enough disk space and RAM to support the extra load without bogging, but it is a very solid solution.
Installing Ubuntu is easy – even easier with an application like VirtualBox – just install virtualbox, download the latest ubuntu ISO, and install from there. If you’re on bare metal, the easiest thing to do is burn a CD and install off that.
Ubuntu desktop comes with Firefox in the tool bar. Customizing for private browsing is a bit more involved.
My first steps are to install:
- noscript to create your own whitelist of sites allowed to run scripts,
- better privacy to apply rules for deleting flash cookies,
- TACO to control tracking cookies,
- UserAgentSwitcher to make your ubuntu/firefox rig generic looking,
- Tor Button to browse without leaving a trail of your IP address.
NoScript is an easy win. It is a bit of a pain to set up at first, but soon you add exceptions for all your favorite sites and while that isn’t great security practice, it is essential for sane browsing. NoScript is particularly helpful when browsing the wacky parts of the net and not getting exotic browsing diseases: it is your default dental dam. Be careful of allowing domains you don’t recognize – Google them first and make sure you understand why they need to run a script on your computer and that it is safe. A lot of sites use partners for things like video feeds, so if some function seems broken, you probably need to allow that particular domain. On the other hand, most of the off-site scripts are tracking or stats and you really don’t need to play along with them.
BetterPrivacy is a new one for me. I am very impressed that it found approximately 1.3 zillion (OK 266) different company flash cookies AFTER I had installed TACO and noscript etc. You bastards. I’m sure I can enjoy hulu without making my play history shared-available to every flash site I might visit. Always Sunny in Philadelphia marks me as a miscreant. I flush the flash cookies on starting silently (preferences).
TACO is a bit intrusive, but it seems to work to selectively block tracking and advertising cookies. At least the pop up is comforting. For private browsing, I’d set it to reject all classes of tracking cookies (change the preferences from default).
User Agent Switcher is useful when you’re deviating from the mainstream. Running Ubuntu pretty much flags you as a trouble maker or at least a dissident. Firefox maybe a bit less so, but you are indicating to advertisers that you don’t respect the expertise of those people far smarter than you who pre-installed IE (or Safari) to make your life easier. Set your user agent to IE 8 because the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.
Torbutton needs Tor to work. Tor provides really good privacy, but is a bit involved. The Tor Button Plugin for firefox makes it seem easier than it really is: you install it and click “use tor” and it looks like it is working but the first site you visit you get an proxy error because Tor isn’t actually running (DOH!).
To get Tor to work, you will have to open a terminal and do some command line fu before it will actually let you browse. Tor is also easier to install on Ubuntu than on Windows (at least for me, but as my browser history indicates I’m a bit of a miscreant dissident, so your mileage may vary).
Starting with these fine instructions.
sudu gedit /etc/apt/sources.list
deb http://deb.torproject.org/torproject.org/ lucid main
deb-src http://deb.torproject.org/torproject.org/ lucid main
gpg --keyserver keys.gnupg.net --recv 886DDD89
gpg --export A3C4F0F979CAA22CDBA8F512EE8CBC9E886DDD89 | sudo apt-key add -
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install tor tor-geoipdb
Install vidalia with the graphical ubuntu software center or with
sudo apt-get install vidalia
Tor expects Polipo. And vidalia makes launching and checking on Tor easier, so remove the startup scripts. (If Tor is running and you try to start it from vidalia, you get an uninformative error, vidalia has a “launch at startup” option, so let it run things.) Vidalia appears under the Applications->Network.
sudo update-rc.d -f tor remove
Polipo was installed with Tor, so configure it:
sudo gedit /etc/polipo/config
Clear the file (ctrl-a, delete)
paste in the contents of this file:
(if the link above fails, search for “polipo.conf” to find the latest version)
I added the binary for polipo in Vidalia’s control panel, but that may be redundant (it lives in /usr/bin/polipo).
I had to reboot to get everything started.