We hate to make you paranoid, but there’s a strong chance that everything you read, share, like, comment on, buy or bookmark online is being tracked. Criminals want to exploit your details and corporations want to sell them. If you’re interesting enough, the government would like to spy on you.
Real talk, though: this isn’t a message from the tin hat brigade. Without taking precautions, some of our most sensitive data is out there for the taking. Our privacy and security is gradually eroding as we position more and more of our social, personal and professional experiences online using “free” services provided by large corporate entities.
These companies don’t need to know so much about you; no one does. There are ways of dramatically reducing the amount of personal information you’re giving away through your operating system, your browser, your searching techniques and the sites you use.
“Obviously it depends what your level of operational security is,” explains Fair IT activist Daniel Erlacher, who hosts seminars and workshops on the matter of online security, anonymity and our right for privacy. “But even the lightest, most casual internet user should consider the options available. Take a little more time and really understand what’s happening and make your own decisions.”
We’ve rounded up the key technical layers to focus on for a more private web lifestyle. Total anonymity can only be achieved with Snowdon-levels of subterfuge, but privacy should be something we all strive for, and this information could change how you live your life online forever.
Your Operating System
Before you even connect online, your operating system – probably Windows or OS X – is the first vulnerability. Similar to how we can no longer even take the battery out of our smartphones, the programming on our operating systems is very much a closed-door policy. Your data is being reported back constantly, and the most common operating systems are highly prone to malware, viruses and Trojan horses.
Linux is an open-source alternative that is transparent, does not feed your data back to corporations and is susceptible to far fewer viruses. While it’s not quite as user friendly as Windows or OSX – you occasionally need to use program commands -distributors of Linux, such as Ubuntu, will never store, share or sell your data or details.
For an even more secure operating system, Tor-based Tails and Anonymous-OS (created by well-known hacktivists Anonymous) will provide serious levels of anonymity.
Just using your internet connection as it is renders you effectively naked: you’re revealing your location, your identity and your browsing habits. This allows companies and individuals to compromise, abuse and sell your data thought tracking cookies. A VPN helps by obscuring this data capture and is one of the most effective ways to keep your online life more private.
It works by creating a tunnel between your computer and your VPN provider, who will then encrypt all information that travels between the two. This includes your location, which has led to VPNs becoming quite popular with Netflix users who want to access content that’s not available in their country. The benefits of a VPN go deeper than accessing movies, TV or file sharing sites blocked in your country, though: it completely obfuscates your IP address.
“There are many VPN services, so read the review sites and find out as much as you can about them,” Erlacher advises. “What country are they located in? Do they offer modern and open source technologies? What software do they use? How often do they update their software? Most importantly, do they keep activity logs? If they do, then that’s another area that’s vulnerable, as your browsing and interactions are still being logged somewhere.”
VPN solutions usually cost around $5-10 per month and vary hugely in terms of services. Look for services that allow you to add more than one device to the service so you can cover your phone and tablet, too.
A Tor connection is another strong move to make when striving for a private internet lifestyle.
Imagine Tor like a BitTorrent style of connectivity: your browsing experience is bounced around through a web of volunteer servers so your details are made difficult to track. Complete with its own pre-configured version of Firefox, use Tor alongside a VPN and you have a robust solution that will help you control what information and data you’re revealing.
The more people volunteer to act as servers and offer up some of their bandwidth, the faster Tor will work. However it’s not recommended that you contribute to Tor yourself in this way: Tor technology isn’t always used by honorable web users and criminal details (such as illegal images or stolen data) are sent using the Tor network, and if they pass through your server then you can be identified and convicted yourself.
This is one of the reasons Tor can be quite slow at times: not everyone is comfortable contributing to the network. It’s also the gateway to the deep web, which contains criminal activity, although this isn’t unique to Tor.
“The deep web can be associated with criminal activity,” Erlacher agrees. “But it’s not the sole reason for it. It means that many people from countries that don’t respect privacy or have certain laws in place can communicate and share data. Tor is also still a worthwhile consideration for passive consumers who want to browse the web and not tell websites where they’re located or tell their provider what they’re doing.”
Change Your Browser
Whether you choose to change your operating system or use a VPN or Tor, there is something you can do to instantly reduce the amount of details you’re showing: consider the browser you’re using, and avoid browsers owned by major search engines and corporations.
Dooble, Comodo Dragon and Firefox are all recommended open source alternatives to Chrome, Edge and Safari. Tor comes with Firefox bundled. It’s open source and offers an easy-to-access menu system that allows you to control the amount of cookies websites can leave on your computer and learn exactly where the information is coming from, and going.
“Many websites load content from a myriad of other servers,” Erlacher says. “It sends code to Google, advertising companies, wherever. It’s important to know where it’s going or coming from. There are tools in Firefox that show you how your data is being sent from one server to another and how to control this. Right now, the way we surf sites and connect with each other is like walking into a supermarket, buying unlabelled tins and hoping for the best.”
Your browser, and the information it allows also creates a unique thumbprint which makes you identifiable. See how identifiable your browser thumbprint is using this site.
This is the first installment of a two-part series on safeguarding your privacy online. Join us next week for the second installment.
For more spooky tech developments, check out our two-part series on the terrifying ways drones will change our lives.
- Words: Dave Jenkins