Pi-hole: The Greatest Thing to Happen to the Internet Since...

These days, ad-blocking browsers and extensions are a dime a dozen. In my view that's a good thing because the internet is full of malvertising and tracking. And while it's getting easier for even non-power-users to integrate ad-blocking technology into their devices, it's still estimated that only 30% of internet users are utilizing ad-blockers. There's also the issue of devices in your home, like smart TVs and other connected devices, that do not allow the installation of ad blockers.

And then there was Raspberry Pi

With the advent of the Raspberry Pi and other single board computers, nerds everywhere got to work making cool software designed to run on these tiny little machines. These days you can quickly setup a retro gaming machine, an Android Auto Headunit, or even multi-node compute clusters to name a few. But one of my favorite projects to come about is the Pi-hole which is a network-wide ad and tracking blocker.

How Pi-hole works

The Pi-hole acts as your network's DNS server (the thing that turns domain names like 'duckduckgo.com' into an IP address like '54.241.2.241') and therefore can hijack the DNS request for domains on its block-list which prevents them from resolving and delivering ads or sending your information back to their servers for tracking purposes.

The Pi-hole ships with some decent ad and tracking lists out of the box, but there are also people heroes out there who carefully curate their own lists of ad and tracking domains and share those with others. One popular guy goes by the name WaLLy3K and his lists contain millions of domains carefully sorted into lists that won't break your normal internet experience and a few that will (but also prevent a lot of tracking). You can find his lists here.

On top of the normal ad blocking functions, Pi-hole gives you a really good look at what devices on your network are doing. You can see a list of the top permitted and blocked domains which can help you find domains that your smart TV or IOT devices are using to send your usage data back to their affiliates. For instance, I saw that my Roku TV was sending a bunch of requests to logs.roku.com and add that to my own "blacklist" to prevent those requests from going out in the future.

How to Get Started

The great thing about Pi-hole is that it can run on basically any linux machine and the hardware requirements are miniscule. Obviously, it was designed with the Raspberry Pi in mind, but if you have and old computer, a VM server, or a single board computer lying around anything will work. With one of those options at your disposal and a linux operating system running, simply run curl -sSL https://install.pi-hole.net | bash from the terminal and the Pi-hole installer will download and start doing its thing. Then you can just change your router to use the Pi-hole machine as its DNS server (preferably giving the Pi-hole a static IP) and all your devices will have instant ad-blocking.

There are active communities on Pi-hole's Discourse site as well as Reddit, so feel free to hop on there with any questions or issues that you have and someone will be happy to help you out.

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