I’m not sure which fact is more terrifying, the reality that we now have unarguable proof of large blanket internet surveillance programs, or the notion that many people reading this are currently saying to themselves, “Why should I care?”. Whether it bothers you or not that big brother is thumbing through your browsing history at will, you should care greatly about protecting your personal privacy online.
Everything you do on the internet, from casually browsing websites to searching on Google, we now know is recorded as “metadata” and can be snooped on by your ISP, government, or even the 12 year old hacker living next door. When we access the web, every user is assigned an IP address, or “digital fingerprint”, that identifies you on that network. Armed with your personal IP address and a pile of metadata, it’s very possible for someone to retrace a person’s online activity for months or even years into the past. Everything from your search terms, to browser history and downloads, could possibly become public knowledge if this data were to somehow become compromised.
Fortunately, thwarting the data harvesting efforts of billion dollar corporations and a super secret spy agency is actually fairly simple. There are a plethora of resources available, you just need to know where to look. In this article, I will focus on real world solutions for protecting yourself when browsing the web. It should only take you a few minutes of your time, and a few dollars a month to improve your online privacy immensely. Here’s how…
Start with the Low Hanging Fruit…
Whether you’re learning how to swing a tennis racket, or figuring out how to secure your online privacy, I believe it’s important to always start with the low hanging fruit… the easy wins. In terms of privacy, getting set up with a good VPN service – or Virtual Private Network – is in my opinion the first place to start.
With just the click of a button, a VPN stands in-between you and the internet encrypting and relaying digital info back and forth through a private IP address. In this way, when a website is accessed the server only sees the IP address of the VPN network, not your personal IP. Additionally, your web session becomes encrypted through the VPN so anyone eavesdropping on a local WiFi connection will come up empty handed. As I explained in a recent Watch Dogs article, spying on people’s WiFi connections is laughably easy to do! Keep this in mind when traveling and accessing the web from public WiFi hotspots.
When searching for a VPN provider, it is best to find a paid service that offers easy setup, fast speeds, unlimited bandwidth and a strict “no logging” policy. TorGuard VPN offers all of these features and allows each user five simultaneous connections per account to protect one’s laptop, smartphone, desktop, WiFi router and tablet. Many free VPN services can’t say the same, and often inundate user’s with advertisements, or more nefariously, go as far as logging user data in the interest of selling it to potential marketers. Yeah… no thanks. Personally I would rather spend a few dollars a month and avoid all that.
Ladar Levison, the founder of LavaBit – an encrypted email provider that recently closed down – said, and I quote… “If you knew what I knew about e-mail, you might not use it.”. Most of us use email every day, both for work and for personal correspondence, and as we’ve learned thanks to the leaks of one Edward Snowden, email providers like Gmail and Yahoo are prime targets for certain 3 letter agencies. So although we seemingly have no way of completely securing our email, there are a few ways to improve security dramatically.
Given the recent wave of encrypted and anonymous email providers in the US, it’s tough for me to give solid recommendations for email providers, but one thing is for sure… you need to get far, far away from the aforementioned “free” email providers. Yes they’re convenient, and yes they’re “free”, but know this… they have access to absolutely all of your emails, and can do with that data as they wish. Instead, I suggest doing a bit of research and finding a provider outside of the US, Canada, or New Zealand… preferably something in Iceland or Germany which have strong privacy laws. The key things to look for are: anonymity, built in PGP Encryption (Pretty Good Privacy), and hosting outside of the previously mentioned countries.
If you’re technically inclined, you can even go a step further by setting up your own home email server. This can be done in less than two hours (if you have the know-how) and won’t cost you a cent.
A Final Point on Social Networks
Facebook… the delight of millions of people around the globe (and spy agencies), and the bane of my existence. I’ll spare you the rant, but suffice it to say that if you think your information there is private, then I’m sorry to inform you that you’re most certainly mistaken. Social networks like Facebook and Google+ are part of the PRISM program in the United States, and provide a wealth of information about you and your friends to organizations that you probably really, really don’t want having that information. If you decide to delete your Facebook account, believe me… it won’t be the end of the world.
I hope you found this useful, and if you have any questions about anything that I’ve mentioned in this article, don’t hesitate to ask. For more information on free software you can use to secure online privacy, have a look at Prism Break.