The loss of privacy in the Internet age is a reality. Depending on the browser and services you use, your every click, website review, and online purchase can be collected, analysed and used to create a profile that’s readily sold off to advertisers and others. Do you really want to shrug your shoulders and say your privacy doesn’t matter?
One of the great things about the internet is its transparency. Build a website and you can track the traffic, where it comes from and what times it peaks. This is very useful for marketing and building out a business. You know what your visitors are doing so you can adjust your tactics accordingly.
One of the downsides about the internet is its transparency. Just ask the US NSA or the UK’s GCHQ, they’ve devised all sorts of tools and techniques to see what is happening, who is doing what and even why.
They’ve even hacked into underwater cables that carry internet traffic around the world.
This might raise the hackles on your back or it might just elicit a shoulder shrug. However, if you are concerned about being tracked, and not necessarily by spooks but even ad agencies who are keen to scoop up as much information on your web movements as possible (because they can sell it), take note of the steps below.
Web search engines
Most of today’s popular search engines such as Google and Bing make fantastic amounts of money tracking user’s searches. They sell the data so advertisers can establish how many times their ads were viewed and target audiences based on location and viewing history.
There are alternative search engines such as Blekko and DuckDuckGo. There is also the TOR search engine hosted on https://ahmia.fi/search/ though the other two are probably more suitable for mainstream searches.
We probably all have a favourite browser such as Google Chrome, Internet Explorer or Safari if you are using a Mac. But did you know these three browsers actually scoop up your data and still track what you are searching online even if you are using ‘private’ or ‘incognito’ search mode?
If you don’t want to have your search history monitored consider open source browser Mozilla Firefox, Tor and Opera for Macs.
Firefox is a good browser and comes with a raft of features that we’ve come to expect from browsers. Tor is the tops for anonymity and you can be sure that nobody will be able to track your movements though it is a pared down browser compared to others. But that said its sole purpose is to provide you with privacy. And it stops people from tracing your physical location which is usually done via IP addresses, because it masks the IP address from snoopers.
If you’re use an email platform like Hotmail or Gmail you might as well accept that your emails are subject to scrutiny should someone choose to do so – and that means every word you have typed, every link you have pasted and every image you have sent.
Unless you’re involved in something deep, dark and disturbing and the law has gotten a sniff of it it’s unlikely that you’re going to be personally targeted. But in a world in which citizens’ actions are being increasingly monitored you never know for sure.
What the intelligence agencies tend to do is mark-up keywords, apply these to all the emails they scoop up and then pull out those that feature the words. They’ll then drill down a bit deeper. They have had versions of this for telephone calls well before emails became commonplace.
There are a number of alternative email providers that encrypt your emails so prying eyes can’t see what is in them. They encrypt the connection from the email provider, the actual email content and your stored and archived messages. Two of the most well-known are Hushmail and Zixmail. Then there are also services such as Lockbin which promises not to store and back-up your emails, and encryption services such as RMail and Mobrien.
If you’re serious about protecting your privacy you’ll need to become a digital hermit. Social networks are the biggest giveaways for personal data and are commonly trawled by hackers, online criminals and even the police.
We’ve all heard stories about someone being fooled into parting with something valuable after being targeted on a social network or identities been stolen. And there are plenty of examples of the police monitoring someone’s Facebook account and subsequently arresting them because a post either revealed intention to commit a crime or they posted a picture of themselves clutching wads of cash. It’s just as well that some villains aren’t the brightest of sparks.
If you’re serious about protecting your privacy then you need to consider encrypting your files be they word documents, images, or anything else that you consider yours. Encrypting your data makes it completely unreadable to anyone but you or its intended recipient.
A good first step is to encrypt your hard drive, where all your files ultimately reside, and other files perhaps on your desktop.
Encryption is a great way to keep your files safe whether you’re sending them over the internet, backing them up, or carrying a laptop with your files on it through airport security. Encrypting your data makes it completely unreadable to anyone but you or its intended recipient.
There are a quite a few encryption tools designed to do this such as VeraCrypt and AxCrypt. If you’ve got Windows 7 or Windows 8 on your computer you can use BitLocker full-disk encryption tool which is built into these operating systems. But that said BitLocker tends to be available in the high-end pro or enterprise versions.
Many of the tools mentioned above also encrypt hard drives. But, remember you’ve got to use a secure password when encrypting so only you can access the files and drive.
A simpler alternative is to store your files in the cloud with a service such as BullGuard Backup which encrypts your documents. Ostensibly it’s a backup up tool but that said it’s a good way to safeguard and encrypt your files.
Internet Service Providers
Many of the most popular Internet Service Providers also monitor your internet usage, it seems like they just can’t help themselves, whether you’re using chat services, watching videos, using tools like Skype or simply using storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox.
It does seem unnecessary and overly intrusive and it’s difficult to understand the justification. But as the saying goes ‘money talks’ and this is usually the imperative in that your data can be sold to advertisers.
If this irritates you and want to do something about it you can. However, it’s not as simple as changing your service provider but you can change some of the services you use to keep the nosy ISP out.
For instance, VoxOx can replace Skype and Google Hangout, Vimeo and Veoh are good alternatives to YouTube, Tresorit is a viable alternative to Dropbox and Google Drive while Crypto.cat and Pidgin.im are private alternatives to Gchat or Facebook chat.
This one is for the hardcore privacy seekers because ultimately it means viewing your smartphone in a completely different light. It’s an indisputable fact that many apps and services actually track your usage, display ads and actually access your contacts too.
To protect yourself from this form of snooping you can simply ditch your smart phone and revert to an old school Nokia or similar. Or you can switch off location services, and turn off apps that track you in the background.
Protect My Privacy is a useful app for rooting out apps that snoop. It provides a layer of security between apps and the operating system. When an app attempts to access any protected information, an alert is shown and you have the option to ‘Protect’ or ‘Allow’. It’s available for both Android and iPhone.
A word of caution
The alternatives suggested above base their attraction on the fact that they are designed to protect your privacy. All well and good and important in the age of internet snooping, but if they are requested to hand over data by law enforcement many of them will. Not that we’re suggesting you’re doing anything you shouldn’t but it’s a point to keep in mind.