FAQ protect your privacy online

Published on August 5th, 2013 | by magnus

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How to Protect Your Privacy Online

Recent revelations have shown Big Brother is watching. Secretly and unconstitutionally collected and archived in a secret data centers, the NSA has it all. No matter who or where you are, no matter how you communicate or with whom, the NSA probably has a copy of it. And they aren’t the only ones. If that isn’t enough to freak you out, try this little thought experiment: Imagine you make a copy of all of your important paperwork (birth certificates, Social Security cards etc…), all your letters and emails, all of your phone bills, all your credit card, utility bills, print out all of your Facebook posts and tweets, then pack them all into a box and mail it to the Federal government for safe keeping. Would you do it?

But that’s exactly what is happening, wholesale collection of data, your’s, mine, everyone’s. Obama’s statement “nobody is listening to your calls,” most likely a lie, isn’t very reassuring, especially coming from a government with a history of covert activities ranging from assassinations and overthrowing governments to executing its own citizens without trial and starting illegal wars under false pretense.

Edward Snowden decided he did not want to live in a world where everything he does is closely watched and stored for eternity. He decided to shed light into the secret world of government wrong doing and he is paying the price. Fortunately we don’t have to risk as much as he did to protect our freedoms. We each can take steps to insure our activities and communications are once again private, as guaranteed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the US Constitution. Trust no one and encrypt everything, or at least as much as possible. So how do you protect your privacy online?

Internet Connection

VPN Verge is all about VPNs, virtual private networks, so naturally we like VPNs. A VPN encrypts your Internet traffic and makes you anonymous by putting a VPN server between you and the rest of the world, not even your ISP will have a clue what you are up to. Any VPN will hide what you do online from Google or other search engines, hide your identity from the websites you navigate to, block advertisers from tracking you and of course, leave the NSA with no other option than to get a warrant if they want access to your information, just like it should be. You can achieve a similar result by using Tor, a technology that routes your traffic through several servers before accessing the public network; it is free but slow.

Email

Email should be encrypted. It is a pain to setup, but will guarantee the privacy of your communication. I once thought that it would be sufficient to encrypt only my important stuff, unfortunately that isn’t so. By analyzing whom you communicate with and how often, you are giving away important clues about what you are thinking, without the need for anyone to actually read the content of your communication. The government’s downplaying of the meta data collection is clearly misleading . To achieve secure email you have to accomplish two goals: (1) you need to encrypt the content of your message and (2) you must hide your identity.

(1) can easily be achieved using PGP, or you could attach an encrypted file. How easy or complicated this will be depends on your OS and how many people you normally communicate with. Check out http://lifehacker.com/180878/how-to-encrypt-your-email and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Email_encryption.

(2) is more difficult to achieve as General Patraeus found out who shared a gmail address with his mistress and instead of sending emails just typed messages to each other within Gmail. There are smarter ways to do this, but all involve some type of anonymous email account and some stripping off the sender information leaving the recipient information intact because otherwise the email would have no destination. Just as important as anonymizing your email itself is hiding your identity when interacting with you email provider. Probably the best way to accomplish this is by using the Tor Browser Bundle in combination with a webmail account.

The easiest way to encrypt and anonymize your email is to use an anonymous email service such as http://hushmail.com or TorGuard in conjunction with anonymous Internet access.

Social Networks

Social Networks are enticing and here to stay. They are a great way to keep in touch with friends and family and to meet new people, BUT they are the antithesis to privacy. It is very easy to learn information about you from reading your social network contributions, your posts, your comments, your +1s and the like. You can lock down who can see your activity, but it is impossible to stop the NSA from snooping. Your only option is not using social networks…

Mobile Phones

Your mobile phone, or as Julian Assange once so aptly put it “tracking device with telephony function,” knows all your secrets and AT&T, Verizon and Apple are using it for their own data gathering purposes and are happily sharing. After a short period of publicly denying their involvement in the NSA spying scandal, their complicity became rather obvious. To make matters worse, the NSA can track your phone even when it is turned off. Because our mobile phones have become somewhat of our personal assistants, and because you most likely have the phone with you wherever you go, they are a key link to your identity.

Your mobile phone offers three obvious areas of interest, your location, the communications to and from it, and the data stored on the device itself. The paranoid's best option is a prepaid-SIM, no need to tell anyone who you are, just make sure you pay cash and use a lot of different SIMs. This step will disassociate your name and number, BUT unless you are really careful, a determined analyst will be able to infer your identity from the calls you make and SMSs you send.

You can setup most VPNs on your mobile, so at least you can encrypt the data connection and protect your Internet activity from your provider and other nosy parties.

As far as the data stored on the device itself is concerned, mobile operating systems offer some basic protections, Android is safer than iOS, but it is easy for law enforcement to circumvent those protections using widely available forensic tools once they get hold of your device. Here is a great article from arstechnica for those who want to dive in deeper.

I couldn't find any reasonable way to securely make calls from your mobile, but there are ways to encrypt your SMS, Wickr (https://www.mywickr.com/en/index.php) being one, and similar apps are available for android.

Conclusion

Technology is advancing at record speeds and the discussions about possible implications aren’t happening fast enough. The average congressman does not understand the technology they are using, but is voting on laws governing it anyway, which doesn’t really matter because they don’t read the stuff they are voting on in the first place.

Unfortunately we can count on governments and corporations to continue to abuse their powers, therefore it is up to each of us to take the necessary steps to protect our rights to privacy and free speech. It is by no means easy to circumvent the elaborate net the NSA has spun, and without Edward Snowden we would have probably never learned the true extend of said net, but it isn't impossible.

Or maybe we should take a different approach and pass laws that will allow individuals to use the NSA's vast data repository as a personal backup service? After all we are paying for it, just saying…

Image Credit: nicholas

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About the Author

Network engineer and cryptography enthusiast. Privacy is a human right, but unless we fight for it we will lose it.



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