Online privacy protection for beginners
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We are gradually building up an extensive series of tutorials and guides about various aspects of online privacy protection here at Cryptorials. If this is your first visit here, then I hope you take a few moments to browse through them after you have read this article. The aim in building up this set of guides is to cover each subject in as much depth as possible, while also keeping them accessible to the average person who doesn’t have a technical background. But in pursuing this goal I have come to realize that covering each topic individually doesn’t work for a lot of people. Many ordinary internet users simply haven’t thought much about their online privacy before, don’t know what the issues are, and don’t know what they need to learn about in the first place.
What was missing was a one-stop guide to online privacy protection for beginners, which covers everything you need to get started – so that is what this article aims to offer.
Nothing to Hide: Why Care About Online Privacy?
Before beginning I would like to take a moment to reiterate why this subject is so important. Most people know somewhere in the back of their mind that it is something they should care about, but couldn’t really say why. Many others think that it is something they don’t need to care about.
That old saying that “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” was originally coined by the infamous Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. That alone should tell you something about whether or not it is advice you should rely on. But there are also many other reasons. Here are just a few of them:
- Businesses analyzing your data may charge you extra if they think you will pay it. Internet shopping is convenient, but it makes it very easy for companies to offer different pricing to different groups of people based on data they have collected or paid to access. This differential pricing is unlikely to work out in your favour – they will charge you as much as they think they can get away with.
- So called ‘big data’ collected about large groups of people can be used very effectively to manipulate large segments of the population based on clever psychological techniques. This kind of social engineering can be used by both corporate and government entities. So even if your data is never used in connection with you personally, it could be used to further increase the imbalance of power between global elites and ordinary people and to entrench the interests of people who do not have your interests at heart. Why give away this power for free to people you don’t know?
- Some people need privacy to do good things – its not just criminal who have something to hide. Whistleblowers, activists, journalists and other groups need to protect their privacy. For these people, there is safety in numbers. If they are the only ones who care about their privacy, they will stand out just for that. By joining them in doing the kind of things explained here you make them all that little bit safer.
- Over-zealous government officials sometimes get it wrong. Many people have found themselves on government lists and ended up being harassed by law enforcement or denied their rights after engaging in perfectly legal and moral activity. Examples include professors being put on terror watch lists because of their research into extremism, or people being tarred with the same brush as somebody they’ve had contact with even though they didn’t know this person was doing anything illegal. Because these things are usually done by secret government agencies operating outside of the usual court system, there is often nothing you can do if this happens.
- Privacy is an essential part of security. It is not just governments and corporations that want to track your internet activity – hackers also want to track you in order to help them hack into your device, steal your identity, or engage in other nefarious activities.
Getting Started with Protecting Your Privacy Online
Popular Online Privacy Software
In order to track, monitor and record what you are doing an adversary first needs to be able to identify you. Perhaps the most important thing that you can do, therefore, is to break the link between your device (and therefore you personally) and the things you are doing when you use the internet.
This can be done by using a privacy network, in which your internet connection is routed through another computer. When you do this it looks, to any observer, as if your activity is coming from that other computer and not you.
There are two popular ways that you can do this, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
#1 TOR: ‘The Onion Router‘ or ‘TOR’ for short is free to download, easy to use, and offers strong privacy protection. But it does slow down your internet connection and may result in you not being able to access some website and other websites not working fully. There have also been reports that government agencies are putting people on ‘extremist’ watchlists just for using TOR. To use this free software just download and install the software, then use the web browser they provide instead of your usual browser whenever you want to visit a website.
2 VPNs: ‘Virtual Private Networks’ are perhaps even easier to use. You just install the software, click to connect, and you can carry on as you usually would – no need to use a special browser or anything like that. A good quality VPN will be just as good as TOR for most users, but will be much faster and less likely to cause problems such as blocked sites or governments marking you as an extremist. But you do need to pay to use them. I recommend IP Vanish.
Use a Search Engine Which Doesn’t Track You!
Google is infamous for tracking and permanently recording everything you do. If you are using a VPN then you already have some protection against this kind of tracking (although of course they can still track you if you are logged in!). If not then you should strongly consider keeping your searches to yourself by using an alternative search engine like DuckDuckGo or Disconnect Search.
You may also like to ask Google to delete the data they have stored on your internet searches and control what they record in the future using this guide.
Use an Email Account Which Doesn’t Spy on You!
Encrypt Your Hard Drive
If one of your main concerns is ensuring that your computer is secure, then encrypting your hard drive is an essential action. Basically it just means that you password protect everything saved on your computer. This can stop hackers or spies from being able to read what is saved on your computer or access any files they don’t have your permission to access.
VeraCrypt is a popular and effective piece of software that will do this for you.
If you want your financial information to remain secure then you should really consider using Bitcoin for online purchases and even for savings and other uses.
Users who do not want to be exposed to the volatile price swings of Bitcoin but still want to get the advantages of using it may consider using something like Uphold. If you are willing to invest in the future of money and take some risk with the fluctuating price which many people (including me) believe is more likely to go up than down in the long-term then try Coinbase which also offers extra features like a visa debit card so you can shop in stores which don’t accept Bitcoin directly.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is simply to be aware of the information that you share and to take a moment to think about what will happen to that data and whether you really need to share it before putting it out there.
This can mean thinking about the information you post on social networks, using pseudonyms and fake data to register accounts if you think a company is asking you for more information than they need, and taking a moment to check the privileges you are granting to apps when you download and use them.
But don’t worry if you have already spread your personal information far and wide – there are things that you can do about it.
One great tip is simply to delete accounts you no longer use, so that they can’t hang on to your personal info for no reason and sell it on to others. Account Killer provides a handy set of guides to deleting your accounts and personal info from popular apps and websites.
Managing App Permissions
Sometimes you can end up with apps installed on your mobile device that have permissions they don’t need or you don’t want them to have. Allowing apps to have access to thinks you don’t need them to have is bad practice.