This new privacy tool would speed up your internet

These days, you may wish you had a magic switch you could flip to keep your data more secure.

The misuse of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica is only the latest consumer privacy flap to create outrage. Remember the Equifax hack? That affected more than 230 million people. And in 2017, US lawmakers reversed Obama-era rules that forbade your internet service provider from making money off your web-browsing history.

Suddenly internet users are realizing that their internet service providers have been amassing huge troves of data on all the websites they visit. People aren’t happy about that, and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it.

So a magic switch would be nice. And that’s essentially what website performance and security giant Cloudflare set out to create with its new tool called 1.1.1.1. Announced Sunday, 1.1.1.1 aims to speed up your internet connection and make it impossible for your ISP to collect your browsing history. That’s big news at a time when consumers are demanding more control of their data.

“If you switch to 1.1.1.1, then that ledger of where you’re going online is not being kept by your ISP,” Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, said in an interview.

With 1.1.1.1, internet users can let Cloudflare take over the process of resolving requests to the Domain Name System, also known as DNS. That’s the crucial process of matching up a URL — like facebook.com — with a website’s true location on the internet, called an IP address (for Facebook, that’s 157.240.18.35).

Usually your internet service provider takes care of DNS for you. This also happens to be a great way to log every website you visit. Taking that out of your ISP’s hands, then, makes it harder for the company to collect your browsing history.

That’s what Cloudflare’s pitching with its new service, which is free and can be used by changing the settings in your web browsers or operating systems. You can use it on computers, routers and phones. If you type 1.1.1.1 into your web browser, you’ll find a website that gives you instructions.

Swearing off data collection

Animated gif shows how to point your iPhone toward 1.1.1.1 on a specific Wi-Fi network.
This gif shows how to point your iPhone toward 1.1.1.1 on a specific Wi-Fi network.

Cloudflare

But wait, if Cloudflare is directing your website queries, then can’t it collect your browsing history for itself? Actually, they’re not going to keep that data at all, Prince said.

“At no time will we record the list of where everyone is going online,” Prince said. “That’s creepy.”

Cloudflare is working with third-party auditors at KPMG to examine their systems and guarantee they’re not actually collecting your data. That privacy commitment, Prince said, is what separates Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 from other DNS services that are free and open to the public.

Other services include OpenDNS (owned by Cisco) and open-source project TentaDNS. Google also provides a DNS resolver, called Google Public DNS. Google does limit the kinds of information it saves when you use its DNS service, but it keeps anonymized lists of all the web addresses users search for in permanent logs, along with other information. The company says it doesn’t correlate web browsing activity with Google accounts.

Cloudflare’s promise to keep your data private is impressive, said Heidi Shey, a privacy and security expert at business analyst firm Forrester. “It’s a great thing that they’re coming out of the gate and being up front about that,” Shey said. Still, she added, “You’re kind of taking what they’re saying at face value.”

The company will need to continue to be transparent, showing what the auditors find in their logs, for consumers to continue to trust the service, Shey said.

That might be especially important because of a coding flaw, dubbed Cloudbleed, that in 2017 afflicted websites using Cloudflare’s products. That led to the potential exposure of usernames, passwords, messages and other important information. Cloudflare fixed the problem, and there aren’t any indications that hackers used the flaw to steal anyone’s information.

Taking it one step further

Prince acknowledges that 1.1.1.1 is no silver bullet. Internet service providers still have other tools for sniffing out which websites you visit. That’s because some key information about your web-browsing habits is encoded into the bits and bytes that travel over the internet, and ISPs can intercept that information and read it.

Cloudflare is hoping to help solve that problem, too. It’s promoting the implementation of a system called DNS over HTTPS, which encrypts that data about your web browsing as it flows online.

It’ll be up to the makers of web browsers, operating systems and devices to build in support for DNS over HTTPS. If that becomes standard practice, using a DNS service like 1.1.1.1 will cut off your internet service provider from your browsing history for good.

Mozilla is looking into making DNS over HTTPS a feature of its Firefox browser.

“Firefox is the most privacy-centric browser, and we are always looking for new technologies like DNS over HTTPS to ensure we’re at the cutting edge of speed, privacy and making life online better,” Selena Deckelmann, a senior director of engineering at Mozilla who focuses on Firefox, said in a statement.

What’s the catch?

Lest you think this is an April Fools’ joke too good to be true, Prince said there’s something in it for Cloudflare, too. The company’s main business is making its customers’ websites run fast. While Cloudflare has an array of services to make this happen, Prince said, he realized that creating a free DNS service could speed things up on the user’s end.

So if you use 1.1.1.1, there should be a combined effect when you visit the websites of Cloudflare customers. “It’s going to be even faster,” Prince said.

Oh, and why announce it on April Fools’ Day? It’s a bit of programming humor, Prince said. April 1 can also be written as 4/1. That’s an awful lot like four ones, or… 1.1.1.1.

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