People have many reasons to want more privacy online. Some just as a matter of principle, some to be safe and others to hide from something or someone. This article takes a look at some internet privacy issues and how you can take steps to hide your internet activities from the eyes and ears of the web.
As you know by now, on this website I cover a lot of information about cell phone spy software apps and how they work. This is just one area of potential threat to your online privacy – I cover some others in this article.
I also cover some security questions regarding spy software apps – How to know if your phone is being monitored and then how to remove spy software. Protecting your device going forward is another popular security article. Now – on with this one!
There’s no denying it. The internet is the most effective surveillance tool available today – we’ve said it a million times, it’s a hot topic among many news outlet and there has been a swarm of new tools to help you avoid the “eyes and ears” of the internet.
It seems like everything we do is collected, recorded and stored indefinitely; companies like Google may know more about your personal interests than your partner for 15 years.
Of course there is a dark side to online anonymity, but it also offers protection for those of us that don’t seek to use the internet for immoral reasons and want to avoid cybercrime. But can you achieve 100% online anonymity?
If not, who will be able to see your online activities? In this post we will address all of these questions, discuss why everyone has been raving on about internet surveillance and introduce you to a set tools that you can use to erase your footsteps on the internet to a large degree.
Why Online Anonymity Is Important to Everyone
When it comes to online surveillance we all have something worth hiding or better yet, to protect. Before we delve into the meat of the matter, let’s map out why “I have nothing to hide” is the wrong approach to take with online surveillance and why you may want to avoid it.
Like many, you’ve probably come across the information of Edward Snowden exposing the surveillance tools set in place by the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the US National Security Administration (NSA). It serves to remind us that spying comes in many forms and effects many people – even governments!
PRISM is the most talked about of all the tools that were uncovered. It is used by NSA to retrieve electronic information on users of popular email services and social networks like Facebook. Almost everything that is stored on a third party server can be collected and recorded using PRISM if needed. It’s the most common tool adapted with the Patriot Act by the US government under President Bush.
PRISM is not the only internet surveillance tool being used today. You may have heard of STORMBREW and FAIRVIEW that can be used to collect data that passes through any router. With these tools confidential information can be collected from your email, and browsing history; as well as files (images, documents, videos) that you have transferred over the router.
One of the most recent tools to join in on the fun is XKEYSCORE, it is used to examine large amounts from your online activities. XKEYSCORE is also used by NSA to monitor the activities of people who use the internet to search for online privacy tools on a regular basis.
The US and the UK were at the center of the Edward Snowden debacle but they are not the only country spying on citizens’ online activities. If there is internet access in your country then there is a high chance it is happening to you as well.
The government is not the only one using internet surveillance, many private companies are using it to spy on their competitors and find out exactly what prospective customers are looking for. They may not be interested in your email and online chat sessions but they may have information on your browsing history, the apps you use and the social network pages you visit.
So, why should you be weary of private organizations and the government officials having information on your online activity if you have nothing to hide? For a number of reasons.
Take your pick – whether you feel it’s violating your human rights; you’re fearful of becoming a victim of cybercrime; or to avoid harassment and discrimination. All of these are valid reasons for you to avoid internet surveillance.
Now that you we’ve discussed how internet surveillance is carried out why you should worry about it, let’s jump into details on how to protect your privacy.
Keep Your Browsing Habits Private
Your internet browsing history can teach anyone a lot about you – from your goals to your favorite sandwich. You create your own footprint from the websites you visit, ads you view and internet searches you make from your PC. Yes those sites too!
Hiding this information can be beneficial, especially for those of you living in countries such as China, South Korea, and Cuba – where web browsing certain sites can have serious consequences.
So, how can you visit your favorite website without anyone knowing? You’re about to find out.
Use a VPN
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is one of the easiest ways to conceal your browsing habits. VPNs work a lot like the firewall on your PC. The firewall protects the data on your computer while VPNs protects your data online.
It does so by setting up an intermediate server between PC and the websites you visit – effectively making it look like the connection is somewhere else, hiding your location and personal details. VPNs are encrypted to protect you identity and will only show the connection to a VPN server if someone is looking.
There are a number of free VPNs that you can use to browse the internet anonymously, most of which work perfectly independently. In many ways they give you more freedom when browsing the internet.
For instance they allow you to access videos on internet streaming medias such as Netflix and Hulu that are restricted in certain regions. There are also VPNs that you can pay for to receive more speed, bandwidth and limit ads when using the internet is a lucrative venture.
Some of these are HideMyAssPro, TunnerBear and CyberGhost Premium. Setting up these programs is usually simple and can be completed in under 5 minutes by downloading the app or browser extension and then installing it. They are perfectly legal and widely used.
VPNs can also be used in conjunction with software such as Tor. Of course using both can be tricky but if used correctly it can be beneficial. For instance it conceals the fact that you are using Tor to browse anonymously from even your internet service provider; the more complex the connection the more difficult it will be for anyone to monitor the browsing traffic.
To start using Tor all you have to do is download and install the Tor browser Bundle. The website provides specific instructions to assist you in downloading the software and it is available in many different languages.
They also outline a few habits you might want to change if you want Tor to work perfectly. In addition to helping you browse the internet safely, Tor will also give you access to onion sites. These are websites that can only be accessed using Tor.
Couple the software with a VPN to make it next to impossible for anyone to know which websites you visit. In addition to the three servers Tor creates between you and your destination, the VPN will add one, making it harder for anyone to trace your footprints; anyone who wants to will require high intelligence and a lot of time on hand.
A Bit About Cookies
Your internet activities can also be traced by the cookies placed on your computer. These are small text that are generated by the servers of different web pages you visit and placed on your hard drive; they’re like tiny breadcrumbs linking your computer to the internet.
Cookies are what allow websites to remember your passwords and preferences. Ad networks are the common medium used put cookies on your computer (recent findings have also indicated that they can deposit harmful items on your PC).
Using ad block is one of the most effective means of preventing snoopers from tracking your internet habits with cookies. The downside is that the internet is crowded with ads today and thus limiting your access to certain content on the web if you use ad block. Using a good antivirus such as Avast may suffice but it also makes you vulnerable to other methods of tracking.
Simply clearing cookies regularly can help – but it is actually quite difficult to stop information being relayed using cookies. It is ironic that advertizing information is probably the hardest to stop! Of course if you are browsing anonymously using a VPN – the cookie issue does not matter as they are not personalized to you.
Running a VPN or Tor may slow your internet connection and may require some effort on your part. If you’re not up to the challenge you may want to consider downloading and installing a few browser extensions. For example :
- HTTPS Everywhere – which will ensure that you always visit secure websites
- Disconnect – it blocks third-party tracking cookies
There are lots of useful browser extensions which can help to block adds and limit unwanted cookies – but remember this will only give you low level privacy protection.
Secure Your Email
If you’re shaken up by someone tracking your browsing habits then you’ll be terrified when they come knocking on the doors of your email; the digital home of your private files and personal and business communications.
While most of us have learned not send certain things using our email, you may still want to protect it from intruders. Even if it is personal messages between you and your peers discussing your personal opinion, you may want to keep it off the radar.
Securing your email is not as easy as securing your browser. For instance, both sides of an email conversation will have to be encrypted to prevent others from accessing the messages. If the sender’s message is encrypted and the receiver fails to save it in a secure format, it will be easy for someone, with the right tools and intelligence, to access the messages.
In most cases you cannot guarantee that the person you are communicating with has secured their email, so it’s always best to avoid sending extremely private things.
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is currently one of the most popular ways of encrypting emails. In a nutshell, it converts readable messages into complex text that is unreadable.
Whether it’s an instant message or an email it will travel to the receiver in this cipher format. The receiver will have to use PGP to decrypt the message using his/her own personal key to make it readable. Generally, PGP has proven itself to be very effective.
Encrypting your messages will protect you from anyone or anything that has an interest in your messages. This includes your email service providers, like Gmail, who monitor the content of your messages for ad targeting purposes.
It is worth remembering that some of the higher level Government spying activities have involved the monitoring of email traffic. Often using specific phrases that might suggest that you are involved in illegal activities – sometimes of course this is wrong. Email is so widely used these days that it is of course a major target for spying.
With that said, we can all agree that the email is not the best way to convey private information if you’re not confident in your encryption skills. If it is not secured – just assume that it can be monitored and use it accordingly.
Protect Your Instant Messages
Instant messaging has reinvented the way we communicate with each other, not just socially but also professionally, making it more convenient and fun. For the younger generation it is becoming their preferred method of texting and sharing images.
Emojis alone have made instant messaging more enjoyable than traditional phone conversations. If you go through your saved IM messages, you are likely to come across a few things you would like to keep private, which brings us back to encryption.
The most common method used for encrypting instant messaging is Off-the-Record messaging (OTR). It enables you to keep your conversations private on instant messaging platforms through encryption, authentication and deniability.
Encryption makes the messages unreadable, while authentication assures you that the correspondent is who you think it is. Deniability ensures that the messages do not have digital signatures that can be traced back to you.
Nonetheless, both correspondents are guaranteed that the messages they receive are authentic. Using OTR is really simple, you will need to install Pidgin and the Pidgin-OTR plug-in and setup an account to get started. If you use a Mac OS X you will need to use Adium instead. Either option will provide you with encryption for Facebook, Hangouts, Aim, and Yahoo Instant Messenger.
In addition to OTR, there are number of other methods that can be used to encrypt your IM. Cryptocat for example is a mobile application that allows for secure online instant messaging. All messages are wiped every hour from the app and it’s one of the simplest ways to encrypt IMs.
SafeChat, an app that can also be used to encrypt Facebook IM. As with your email, both parties will need to use the encrypted client to ensure that the messages cannot be seen by anyone.
Keep Your Messages Safe
The messages you send and receive using your cell phone are not that safe either. Recently there has been some major concerns over the privacy of the Facebook messaging app, WhatsApp, and other mediums.
While the Facebook app has not drawn much attention as it relates to privacy, it’s no secret that they closely monitor our activities on the social network, so one can only assume the same goes for the app. Naturally Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp left users wondering if their privacy will be at risk.
Surprisingly, WhatsApp has stepped things up a notch by improving security and privacy since the acquisition. The updated version features end-to-end encryption for text messages making it impossible for anyone to decrypt your messages – even WhatsApp themselves. While the encryption will not be available for all platforms for a while, it’s nonetheless a great achievement.
Just be aware that a device with mobile spy software installed on it can still be monitored from within so to speak – bypassing any encryption. mSpy and Flexispy can spy on WhatsApp and a wide range of other messaging apps.
WhatsApp has been the most popular messaging app for quite some time but this has not stopped others from wanting to compete. Telegram has been getting a lot of attention lately, mainly because it already features end-to-end encryption and self-destructing messages.
It uses cloud based storage so you can access your messages on your tablet and PC from a web browser. WhatsApp charges $1 annually while Telegram is free. Other apps that are fairly safe to send text messages are Threema, Silent text, Confide and Wickr. Select the one that is best for you and try to convince your contacts to do the same.
Protect Your Cell Phone
Some of the methods discussed earlier can be used to protect your cell phone also but there are also a few factors that are unique to cellphones, for example spy software and then metadata.
We have discussed spy software programs – it is important to recognize that they will open up your phone activity from within – bypassing many security steps mentioned in this article. They are a major threat but can be stopped with a few simple precautions.
Without getting too technical – Metadata is information about a specific item’s content. For instance the metadata for a certain image may describe the size of the image while a word file’s metadata will tell how long the content is.
The metadata for your cell phone includes all the numbers you call, the duration of each call, the time the call was made and the location of the person you contacted. This information is available to your phone company and can be requested by a government official if needed.
NSA has been paying a lot of attention to metadata lately since it gives them enough information to establish what your relationship is with the person you’re contacting. Of course there is still the old trick used by government officials where they get a court order to tap your phone and access all information through the carrier.
There isn’t much you can do to secure your metadata from the public but privacy hardware like Silent Circle and BlackPhone may help, since they encrypt your metadata, making it almost impossible to cipher.
One alternative used widely by criminals is to use burner phones to keep their metadata out of NSA’s hands. They buy cheap pay as you go phones and replace them regularly. Not recommended!
Nonetheless, the most effective thing you can do to keep NSA from accessing your metadata is by becoming a privacy advocate. Support laws to prohibit metadata collection and service providers from passing on your information to others. Good luck with that!
Making phone calls and sending text messages is not the only thing you do with your phone these days. We use them to browse the internet, watch videos and download files and just like a computer your activities can be monitored.
As with your computer, you can use VPNs to protect your cell phone’s browser. Some popular VPNs among iOS devices are VPN Express and HotSpot Shield. There are also a number of apps available that you can download and install on your mobile. Unfortunately the only way to keep you service provider from using GPS to track your location is by turning off your phone.
Secure Your Social Networks
If you have a secure browser then your data on most social networks will be safe. Facebook on the other hand does a lot of snooping on their own. While most of the data they collect is not for national security purposes, like Google they may use it for other reasons.
You’ll be surprise by the amount of information Facebook collects – enough to create shadow profiles for individuals who have never used the network just from your data.
They can even find out if an ad on the network has influenced your offline purchase decisions.
In addition, if you have linked other social networks to your Facebook account like Instagram and Twitter, their server will also be able to access your information on those sites. You may feel this is a huge violation of your privacy but there isn’t much you can do about it since you would have already accepted the terms of service.
Facebook may be the biggest culprit but nearly all social networks will collect information on you after you create an account. App.net is probably the only exception considering it is one of the few social networks not funded by ads.
The best way to limit the amount of your information these networks collect is by using the network less and avoid linking it to other accounts you have online.
You Have A Right To Your Privacy
When it comes to online surveillance there is always something worth hiding. If someone decides to snoop into your private life don’t make it easy for them. Use the methods discussed above to protect yourself. Avoiding internet surveillance is far from easy but with a little effort on your part you can stay off the radar – if you want to or feel you need to.
I do not advocate hiding in any way to allow illegal acts – but like many I do have concerns about the widespread “spying” carried out by corporations – often without our real knowledge. Accepting complicated terms of service should not give them free reign to collect information on such a scale.
That’s just my opinion!