How to save your privacy from the Internet’s clutches

Practical tips to fight surveillance capitalism

Another week, another massive privacy scandal. When it’s not Facebook admitting it allowed data on as many as 87 million users to be sucked out by a developer on its platform who sold it to a political consultancy working for the Trump campaign, or dating app Grindr ‘fessing up to sharing its users’ HIV status with third party A/B testers, some other ugly facet of the tech industry’s love affair with tracking everything its users do slides into view.

Suddenly, Android users discover to their horror that Google’s mobile platform tells the company where they are all the time — thanks to baked-in location tracking bundled with Google services like Maps and Photos. Or Amazon Echo users realize Jeff Bezos’ ecommerce empire has amassed audio recordings of every single interaction they’ve had with their cute little smart speaker.

The problem, as ever, with the tech industry’s teeny-weeny greyscale legalise, is that the people it refers to as “users” aren’t genuinely consenting to having their information sucked into the cloud for goodness knows what. Because they haven’t been given a clear picture of what agreeing to share their data will really mean.

Instead one or two select features, with a mote of user benefit, tend to be presented at the point of sign up — to socially engineer ‘consent’. Then the company can walk away with a defacto license to perpetually harvest that person’s data by claiming that a consent box was once ticked.

A great example of that is Facebook’s Nearby Friends. The feature lets you share your position with your friends so — and here’s that shiny promise — you can more easily hang out with them. But do you know anyone who is actively using this feature? Yet millions of people started sharing their exact location with Facebook for a feature that’s now buried and mostly unused. Meanwhile Facebook is actively using your location to track your offline habits so it can make money targeting you with adverts.

Terms & Conditions are the biggest lie in the tech industry, as we’ve written before. (And more recently: It was not consent, it was concealment.)

Senator Kennedy of Louisiana also made the point succinctly to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week, telling him to his face: “Your user agreement sucks.” We couldn’t agree more.

Happily disingenuous T&Cs are on borrowed time — at least for European tech users, thanks to a new European Union data protection framework that will come into force next month. The GDPR tightens consent requirements — mandating clear and accurate information be provided to users at the point of sign up. Data collection is also more tightly tied to specific function.

From next month, holding onto personal data without a very good reason to do so will be far more risky — because GDPR is also backed up with a regime of supersized fines that are intended to make privacy rules much harder to ignore.

Of course U.S. tech users can’t bank on benefiting from European privacy regulations. And while there are now growing calls in the country for legislation to protect people’s data — in a bid to steer off the next democracy-denting Cambridge Analytica scandal, at very least — any such process will take a lot of political will.

It certainly will not happen overnight. And you can expect tech giants to fight tooth and nail against laws being drafted and passed — as indeed Facebook, Google and others lobbied fiercely to try to get GDPR watered down.

Facebook has already revealed it will not be universally applying the European regulation — which means people in North America are likely to get a degree of lower privacy than Facebook users everywhere else in the world. Which doesn’t exactly sound fair.

When it comes to privacy, some of you may think you have nothing to hide. But that’s a straw man. It’s especially hard to defend this line of thinking now that big tech companies have attracted so much soft power they can influence elections, inflame conflicts and divide people in general. It’s time to think about the bigger impact of technology on the fabric of society, and not just your personal case.

Shifting the balance

So what can Internet users do right now to stop tech giants, advertisers and unknown entities tracking everything you do online — and trying to join the dots of your digital activity to paint a picture of who they think you are? At least, everything short of moving to Europe, where privacy is a fundamental right.

There are some practical steps you can take to limit day-to-day online privacy risks by reducing third party access to your information and shielding more of your digital activity from prying eyes.

Not all these measures are appropriate for every person. It’s up to you to determine how much effort you want (or need) to put in to shield your privacy.

You may be happy to share a certain amount of personal data in exchange for access to a certain service, for example. But even then it’s unlikely that the full trade-off has been made clear to you. So it’s worth asking yourself if you’re really getting a good deal.

Once people’s eyes are opened to the fine-grained detail and depth of personal information being harvested, even some very seasoned tech users have reacted with shock — saying they had no idea, for example, that Facebook Messenger was continuously uploading their phone book and logging their calls and SMS metadata.

This is one of the reasons why the U.K.’s information commissioner has been calling for increased transparency about how and why data flows. Because for far too long tech savvy entities have been able to apply privacy hostile actions in the dark. And it hasn’t really been possible for the average person to know what’s being done with their information. Or even what data they are giving up when they click ‘I agree’.

Why does an A/B testing firm need to know a person’s HIV status? Why does a social network app need continuous access to your call history? Why should an ad giant be able to continuously pin your movements on a map?

Are you really getting so much value from an app that you’re happy for the company behind it and anyone else they partner with to know everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, the stuff you like and look at — even to have a pretty good idea what you’re thinking?

Every data misuse scandal shines a bit more light on some very murky practices — which will hopefully generate momentum for rule changes to disinfect data handling processes and strengthen individuals’ privacy by spotlighting trade-offs that have zero justification.

With some effort — and good online security practices (which we’re taking as a given for the purposes of this article, but one quick tip: Enable 2FA everywhere you can) — you can also make it harder for the web’s lurking watchers to dine out on your data.

Just don’t expect the lengths you have to go to protect your privacy to feel fair or just — the horrible truth is this fight sucks.

But whatever you do, don’t give up.

How to hide on the internet

Action: Tape over all your webcams

Who is this for: Everyone — even Mark Zuckerberg!

How difficult is it: Easy peasy lemon squeezy

Tell me more: You can get fancy removable stickers for this purpose (noyb has some nice ones). Or you can go DIY and use a bit of masking tape — on your laptop, your smartphone, even your smart TV… If your job requires you to be on camera, such as for some conference calls, and you want to look a bit more pro you can buy a webcam cover. Sadly locking down privacy is rarely this easy.

Action: Install HTTPS Everywhere

Who is this for: Everyone — seriously do it

How difficult is it: Mild effort

Tell me more: Many websites offer encryption. With HTTPS, people running the network between your device and the server hosting the website you’re browsing can’t see your requests and your internet traffic. But some websites still load unencrypted pages by default (HTTP), which also causes a security risk. The EFF has developed a browser extension that makes sure that you access all websites that offer HTTPS using… HTTPS.

Action: Use tracker blockers

Who is this for: Everyone — except people who like being ad-stalked online

How difficult is it: Mild effort

Tell me more: Trackers refers to a whole category of privacy-hostile technologies designed to follow and record what web users are doing as they move from site to site, and even across different devices. Trackers come in a range of forms these days. And there are some pretty sophisticated ways of being tracked (some definitely harder to thwart than others).

But to combat trackers being deployed on popular websites — which are probably also making the pages slower to load than they otherwise would be — there’s now a range of decent, user-friendly tracker blockers to choose from. Pro-privacy search engine

Firefox also has a built-in tracker blocker, which is now enabled by default in the mobile apps. If you’re curious and want to see the list of trackers on popular website, you can also install Kimetrak to understand that it’s a widespread issue.

Action: Use an ad blocker

Who is this for: Everyone who can support the moral burden

How difficult is it: Fairly easy these days but you might be locked out of the content on some news websites as a result

Tell me more: If you’ve tried using a tracker blocker, you may have noticed that many ads have been blocked in the process. That’s because most ads load from third-party servers that track you across multiple sites. So if you want to go one step further and block all ads, you should install an ad blocker. Some browsers like Opera come with an ad blocker.

Otherwise, we recommend uBlock Origin on macOS, Windows, Linux and Android. 1Blocker is a solid option on iOS.

But let’s be honest, TechCrunch makes some money with online ads. If 100% of web users install an ad blocker many websites you know and love would simply go bankrupt. While your individual choice won’t have a material impact on the bottom line, consider whitelisting the sites you like. And if you’re angry at how many trackers your favourite news site is running try emailing them to ask (politely) if they can at least reduce the number of trackers they use.

Action: Switch to another DNS

Who is this for: People who don’t trust their ISP

How difficult is it: Moderately

Tell me more: When you type an address in the address bar (such as techcrunch.com), your device asks a Domain Name Server to translate that address into an IP address (a unique combination of numbers and dots). By default, your ISP or your mobile carrier runs a DNS for their users. It means that they can see all your web history. Big telecom companies are going to take advantage of that to ramp up their advertising efforts. By default, your DNS query is also unencrypted and can be intercepted by people running the network. Some governments also ask telecom companies to block some websites on their DNS servers — some countries block Facebook for censorship reasons, others block The Pirate Bay for online piracy reasons.

You can configure each of your device to use another public DNS. But don’t use Google’s public DNS! It’s an ad company, so they really want to see your web history. Both Quad9 and Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 have strong privacy policies. But Quad9 is a not-for-profit organization, so it’s easier to trust them.

Action: Disable location services

Who is this for: Anyone who feels uncomfortable with the idea of being kept under surveillance

How difficult is it: A bit of effort finding and changing settings, and a bit of commitment to stay on top of any ‘updates’ to privacy policies which might try to revive location tracking.

You also need to be prepared to accept some reduction in the utility and/or convenience of the service because it won’t be able to automatically customize what it shows you based on your location.

Tell me more: The tech industry is especially keen to keep tabs on where its users are at any given moment. And thanks to the smash hit success of smartphones with embedded sensors it’s never been easier to pervasively track where people are going — and therefore to infer what they’re doing. For ad targeting purposes location data is highly valuable of course. But it’s also hugely intrusive. Did you just visit a certain type of health clinic? Were you carrying your phone loaded with location-sucking apps? Why then it’s trivially easy for the likes of Google and Facebook to connect your identity to that trip — and link all that intel to their ad networks. And if the social network’s platform isn’t adequately “locked down” — as Zuckerberg would put it — your private information might leak and end up elsewhere. It could even get passed around between all sorts of unknown entities — as the up to 87M Facebook profiles in the Cambridge Analytica scandal appear to have been. (Whistle-blower Chris Wylie has said that Facebook data-set went “everywhere”.)

Action: Choose iOS over Android

Who is this for: Mainstream consumers, Apple fans

How difficult is it: Depends on the person. Apple hardware is generally more expensive so there’s a cost premium

Tell me more: No connected technology is 100% privacy safe but Apple’s hardware-focused business model means the company’s devices are not engineered to try to harvest user data by default. Apple does also invest in developing pro-privacy technologies. Whereas there’s no getting around the fact Android-maker Google is an adtech giant whose revenues depend on profiling users in order to target web users with adverts. Basically the company needs to suck your data to make a fat profit. That’s why Google asks you to share all your web and app activity and location history if you want to use Google Assistant, for instance.

Android is a more open platform than iOS, though, and it’s possible to configure it in many different ways — some of which can be more locked down as regards privacy than others (the Android Open Source Project can be customized and used without Google services as default preloads, for example). But doing that kind of configuration is not going to be within reach of the average person. So iOS is the obvious choice for mainstream consumers.

Who is this for: Mainstream consumers, Apple fans

How difficult is it: Depends on the person. Apple hardware is generally more expensive so there’s a cost premium

Tell me more: No connected technology is 100% privacy safe but Apple’s hardware-focused business model means the company’s devices are not engineered to try to harvest user data by default. Apple does also invest in developing pro-privacy technologies. Whereas there’s no getting around the fact Android-maker Google is an adtech giant whose revenues depend on profiling users in order to target web users with adverts. Basically the company needs to suck your data to make a fat profit. That’s why Google asks you to share all your web and app activity and location history if you want to use Google Assistant, for instance.

Android is a more open platform than iOS, though, and it’s possible to configure it in many different ways — some of which can be more locked down as regards privacy than others (the Android Open Source Project can be customized and used without Google services as default preloads, for example). But doing that kind of configuration is not going to be within reach of the average person. So iOS is the obvious choice for mainstream consumers.


 

Here at Dollar Destruction, we endeavour to bring to you the latest, most important news from around the globe. We scan the web looking for the most valuable content and dish it right up for you! The content of this article was provided by the source referenced. Dollar Destruction does not endorse and is not responsible for or liable for any content, accuracy, quality, advertising, products or other materials on this page. As always, we encourage you to perform your own research!

Source

Author’s Natasha Lomas, Romain Dillet

Image Credit