In Our May, 2017 Issue:

Protecting Our Online Privacy

by

Many of you may have heard about the recent pas­sage of a bill by Con­gress allow­ing Inter­net Ser­vice Providers (ISPs) to sell their cus­tomers’ brows­ing his­to­ries to adver­tis­ers. This one bill has essen­tially killed our online pri­vacy. Our brows­ing his­to­ries are, after all, a trea­sure trove of data which can reveal almost every­thing about us: which sites we visit, where we bank, our shop­ping habits, our health con­cerns, our sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, and even when we are home.

Tech­nol­ogy has made our life eas­ier, cer­tainly, but it has also left us far more vul­ner­a­ble. A crim­i­nal from the other side of the world can eas­ily hack our com­put­ers, mobiles and even our smart TVs. Every­thing we do online, whether on Face­book, Google, or indeed almost any web­site is recorded, pack­aged, and then sold to adver­tis­ers to tar­get spe­cific ads at us. One day, we start shop­ping for mater­nity wear, and the next every adver­tise­ment we see is directed towards new moth­ers. Even innocuous-​seeming things, like Facebook’s new per­sonal assis­tant ‘M,’ have the propen­sity to expose our per­sonal infor­ma­tion, with its abil­ity to read all of our Face­book Mes­sen­ger con­ver­sa­tions. It’s high time for us to pro­tect our online pri­vacy, lest we expose our every moment, our every desire, our every pur­chase to out­siders. After all, our pri­vacy needs to be pri­vate to our­selves and our­selves alone, and so this must become our most crit­i­cal priority.

This arti­cle focuses on spe­cific tools and appli­ca­tions that can help us pre­vent the leak­age of our online pri­vacy to out­siders. Mes­sag­ing, brows­ing and emails will be the main focus.

Mes­sag­ing

Tex­ting has become the cor­ner­stone of this gen­er­a­tion. Yet most of the ways we send mes­sages – from SMS to Face­book Mes­sen­ger. – don’t encrypt our mes­sages and often store full copies on com­pany servers, mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to being hacked and exposed. But there are secure options.

What­sApp is the best pop­u­lar mes­sag­ing plat­form for online anonymity, as it encrypts every mes­sage we send and receive. Apple’s iMes­sage also pro­vides encryp­tion for texts, while the Sig­nal Pri­vate Mes­sen­ger offers even bet­ter encryp­tion on both Android and iOS (it’s avail­able in the Google Play store and the Apple App Store). The pop­u­lar­ity of Sig­nal is huge right now, as many politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and activists use it to com­mu­ni­cate, while What­sApp uses the same under­ly­ing tech­nol­ogy for its encryp­tion. Notably, all of these options use end-​to-​end (E2E) encryp­tion, which makes the encrypted data avail­able only to the com­mu­ni­cat­ing users; What­sApp never sees it, Sig­nal never sees it, and even crim­i­nal hack­ers won’t be able to break through the encryption.

Brows­ing

For com­plete online pri­vacy when brows­ing, the new Brave browser is a fan­tas­tic option which blocks adver­tis­ing and the track­ing cook­ies used to track the pages we visit. Bet­ter, Brave inte­grates HTTPS Every­where, which forces sup­port­ing web­sites to use the secure, encrypted HTTPS pipeline for trans­fer­ring data.

Pop­u­lar web browsers, like Chrome and Fire­fox, don’t pro­vide these fea­tures to users by default, but they are avail­able as exten­sions; uBlock Ori­gin is a great ad and track­ing cookie blocker avail­able for most browsers, and HTTPS Every­where is also avail­able as a browser extension.

The Tor Browser goes a step fur­ther, delet­ing almost all iden­ti­fy­ing infor­ma­tion and rout­ing con­nec­tions through other browser users, mak­ing it impos­si­ble for any­one to iden­tify the ori­gin of your brows­ing traffic.

How­ever, the Tor Browser is lim­ited and often slow. A vir­tual pri­vate net­work (VPN) is an alter­na­tive – by using one, only the VPN provider will be able to see your inter­net traf­fic, not your ISP. Notably, the excel­lent Opera browser pro­vides free VPN ser­vice for PCs and a free VPN app for iPhones and Android.

Email

Gmail is the most pop­u­lar email client, but what it lacks is pri­vacy. Gmail reads every email we share and then fil­ters and cat­e­go­rizes them. If we want to send a sen­si­tive email, Gmail will still index it. So, look­ing for a more privacy-​conscious alter­na­tive, some sci­en­tists at CERN (a Euro­pean orga­ni­za­tion for nuclear research) cre­ated an encrypted email offer­ing called Pro­ton­Mail. This email client is essen­tially the ulti­mate pri­vate email option right now, fea­ture­ing E2E-​encrypted emails, anony­mous emails, and auto-​deleting and password-​protected emails.

Online Searches

Googling is the thing we do if we have any query to be answered. But what most of us miss is that Google records every search we make. Our searches can then give them a com­plete pic­ture of us: our inter­ests, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tions, our likes and dis­likes, and even our pro­fes­sions. We lose our online pri­vacy by search­ing on Google. This is where the Duck­DuckGo search engine comes in: Duck­DuckGo pro­vides almost all the fea­tures of Google with­out stor­ing our searches. Because it doesn’t store any search we make, it safe­guards our online pri­vacy. Other options include the Dis­con­nect Search browser exten­sion, which encrypts all of our searches even if we use Google, Bing or other search engines.

For more on what web­sites know about you, check our this arti­cle from our April edition.