Going rogue in the digital age
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I have something to hide. More than a few things, actually. Everyone does—including you.
No matter where you stand on National Security Agency surveillance, it’s easy to forget that the nosy G-men at Fort Meade are just one big brother among many.
Online eavesdropping is easy. Sure, the government does it. But so do big corporations, annoying advertisers, private spy agencies, malicious hackers, and plenty more. If you don’t take steps to protect yourself and your data online, someone, somewhere will collect and store bits and pieces of your private life that can add up to a complete picture of your life.
The easiest way to hide from digital spies is to go off the grid entirely: ditch your phone, your laptop, your credit cards. But for most people, that's unrealistic. We can't give them up and live any resemblance of a normal modern life. It's far more useful, instead, to learn how to cloak yourself—how to obscure your digital footprint so all the spies can't track you in the first place.
What you reveal
Whenever I call my friends overseas, have a Skype chats with my girlfriend, or email journalistic sources, scores of snoopers have the opportunity and the means to spy on me. But this is all just scratching the surface of what kind of information is out there.
My online search and browsing history—just one of many facets of tracking—reveals an incredible amount about me. Looking at only the last week of my Internet use, it’d be easy for an eavesdropper to learn a lot about me, including:
My drug and alcohol history from the websites I visit
My sexual preferences and kinks from what I watch and read
My politics from what I read and write, even if it’s not attached to my name
My medical condition from what symptoms I search for on Google
My personal and business plans from books I browse
My family and relationship issues from forums I visit
My financial status from the bills I pay or the advice I seek
My past and future movements by the Google Maps locations I look up
I’m not doing anything I’m particularly ashamed off—well, shame might be part of the fun with the porn, but that’s a separate conversation—but that doesn’t mean I want to share my entire digital life. I still demand privacy.
And even if you think you “have nothing to hide,” really think about it for a minute: Imagine your entire Internet history could be snooped upon by governments, business clients, bosses, landlords, criminals, and gossipy neighbors. If you have business competitors or political rivals, it’s even easier to see why you will want to protect yourself.
What’s worse, that’s just a fraction of what they can find out from just my browser. Using only a Web browser’s fingerprints and nothing else, 95 percent of Web users can be uniquely identified with very little work from the snooper.
How to protect yourself
Let’s begin by cleaning out what’s publicly available about us online. Thousands of companies put your information out there without you having any idea, whether it be the white pages to ancestry.com. These sites are just part of a huge private intelligence industry that collects everything from your street address and phone number to your family's identity. And any average Joe can search them. But if these sites have collected your info legally—and they aren’t the NSA—you can opt out from many of the services at unlistmy.info.
After that, here’s what I do to stop people from tracking my every move online.
To browse the Internet with almost complete anonymity, I use the anonymity service provided by the Tor Browser Bundle. That shields my computers identity by encrypting data and bouncing it to random nodes around the world.
But like most people, I also use Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox for my day-to-day surfing. A few programs—HTTPS Everywhere, EasyPrivacy, and DisconnectMe—help secure my browser by shutting down invisible tracking from other sites and fighting back against programs or sites that try to track my Web history.
Meanwhile, you might want to start encrypting your private emails and communications. Encryption is useful. TrueCrypt can lock up your computer files like a safe, while GPG and GPGTools can help encrypt your emails.
Search engines are a necessity online. But the biggest in the world, Google, is also one of the most voracious consumers of your personal data. If you’re willing to step away from our all-powerful Mountain View overlords, search engines like DuckDuckGo, Ixquick, StartPage, and Yacy are less intrusive alternatives that will help you get around the Web with a little more subtlety.
If you can’t get away from Google, there are still numerous steps to take towards privacy.
How to protect your smartphone
But what about away from your smartphone? Privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum once said that cellphones are really tracking devices that happen to make phone calls. It’s true.
As phones grow smarter, they know more about our location, movements, purchases, communications, Internet habits, travels, job, friends, sleeping habits, hobbies, and more. The amount of spying that can be done via smartphone is limited mostly by the snooper’s imagination.
What can you do to keep spies out of your pocket? Tor is building a free anonymous mobile OS that will begin testing soon. But that’s not meant for day-to-day use. You’ll want to investigate tools like WhisperSystems, Ostel, Spore, and Silent Circle to begin to secure your phone.
But if there’s one thing you should remember, it’s that your phone will never be immune to eavesdropping. It’s not designed to be. It's meant to broadcast everything it knows about you.
And that just serves to emphasize my broader point: Even after going through all these steps, you're not immune. Billion-dollar industries are devoted to figuring out ways to break through your protections. Maintaining online privacy is very hard. But if you want peace of mind while using your digital devices, you've got no other choice.
Illustration by Jason Reed