Originally written for the Students For Liberty Blogging Series, posted here on 12.15.14
It was almost two years ago that Edward Snowden began the NSA revelations by giving journalists like Glenn Greenwald a series of documents showing how the US government uses mass data collection to snoop on people everywhere on the internet. Since these documents have been analyzed and the depth of NSA spying has been revealed, businesses and individuals all over the web have started services to help protect your privacy from needless government violation.
While it is definitely in your favor to advocate for a stronger protection of online privacy by whatever means you choose, be it contacting a representative, funding groups like SFL and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or protesting invasive bills, it really doesn’t serve you well to leave your privacy to the whim of others. Thankfully, there is a plethora of services, often free of charge, that help protect your privacy. While most of these services probably can’t stop the NSA from finding everything they want about you if they wanted to, it definitely prevents your data from being swiped up by general overarching government programs or companies with scrupulous business practices.
Below is a mini-guide to different software, private services, and other tools that can help preserve your privacy, conceal your online activities, and protect your fourth amendment rights by taking a stand.
It should come as no surprise that search engines make a profit by tracking your Internet usage, as these companies benefit financially by offering free and useful search services in exchange for showing you ads that companies target to your (apparent) tastes. However, there are still options out there that don’t require that you reveal everything about your life.
DuckDuckGo.com is probably the most popular example, as it doesn’t store any actual user data (aka, what you look up) and gives everybody the same results. While it lacks some robust features of sites like Google or Bing, it makes up for this by not doing something the two largest competitors are guilty of: monetizing your search inquiries. By using DuckDuckGo, you finance companies with good business practices, and metaphorically put your money where your mouth is.
Startpage.com is a similar alternative which intuitively uses Google for your search inquiries, but strips all personal identifying information before retrieving search information. In other words, you get access to Google’s search algorithm and its results without giving them all of your personal information.
Browsers are a tricky subject when it comes to privacy. Many are developed by the search engine providers who are attempting to track your Internet usage in order to sell the data to other businesses in the form of targeted advertising. However, many browsers allow you to disable tracking features in addition to offering extensions that cover your tracks. The extensions I mention are available on Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari unless mentioned otherwise.
The first thing you’ll want to do is check your settings in whatever browser you use. There you’ll find all of the options for how the browser stores cookies and history, which track your activity. If you want to help increase your anonymity, I recommend that you set a strict settings for this, such as not allowing cookies from third parties and clearing your cache upon closing your browser. These settings are different in layout browser to browser, so you’ll have to check it out yourself to see what you can do.
Disconnect.Me (not on Safari) is a company that provides multiple extensions and services that help keep your privacy and block companies from tracking you. A very popular extension of theirs that is Private Search, which like Startpage, makes your search inquiries anonymous by going through Disconnect before the search terms are sent to Google, Bing, or Yahoo. They also provide another popular extension, known simply as Disconnect, that blocks general tracking from websites and services.
Blur (formerly known as DoNotTrackMe) is another extension that offers the services of Disconnect, but goes further by anonymizing your credit cards and emails that you use online. In place of your card number and email, they generate a random number that takes place of it. Blur stores the info securely on their servers and does not use any of your personal data. The credit card and email anonymity features come at a cost however, as the free version offers only limited use and requires you register.
Ghostery is another extension like Disconnect and Blur, but it’s unique take is that is stores absolutely no information on you, the only interaction between you and Ghostery being the initial install. It has a constantly growing list of cookies and tracking services, meaning that its comprehensive coverage is always growing.
Cloud storage is a fairly recent tech innovation for the general public and has almost immediately become a major aspect of any student’s or business’ life. However, along with the NSA leaks, we’ve seen that companies like Dropbox have been extremely loose with users’ data. From unencrypted transfers, abusive terms of services, and major holes in security, Dropbox has displayed how an extremely powerful company can manage to completely disregard user privacy. Luckily for us, there are some very secure (and competitive) alternatives.
SpiderOak is naturally the first company to suggest as Edward Snowden himself recommended it. Like Dropbox, Spideroak operates as a drag and drop software you can access from any phone, tablet, or PC with your account. It comes with 2 GB of free storage which can be extended to 10 GB with referrals, and has paid plans as well. The difference between Dropbox and Spideroak, however, is obviously privacy. First of all, Spideroak doesn’t have your password. What this means is that no one can access your data except for yourself. This is what Spideroak markets as their ‘zero knowledge’ policy, and encrypts your data from your PC, to the server, all the while refraining from holding the key necessary to unencrypt what you store.
Wuala.com is similar to SpiderOak in that it is encrypted on your PC to the server, with only the user having any knowledge of the password. Based in Switzerland, Wuala argues it holds the upper hand in security methods and politics, given that its storage locations (Germany, France, and Switzerland) have much better privacy laws than other countries. Sadly, they no longer offer free plans, effective this December, but their pricing is arguably very reasonable, starting at $1.39 for 5 GB a month.
Just as search engines use your history to give you targeted ads, so does your email provider. Whatever you have in your email, many companies search for specific keywords and phrases that allow them to give you ads. Unlike browsers and search engines, there really isn’t a way around this without directly switching to a new provider. Privacy-oriented email is a relatively ‘new’ field, as the surge in popularity has made free accounts limited or nonexistent, but here are some recommendations.
Tutanota.de is a German-based email service that offers full encryption of your email services, from your PC to whoever you send your email to. Additionally, because of Tutanota’s belief in privacy, they offer 1 GB free to everyone, meaning they’re one of the few companies that provide a free account option. Like SpiderOak, they endorse the ‘zero knowledge’ policy, meaning they have absolutely no access to the contents of your email. Additionally, since they’re hosted in Germany, your data is under much stronger legal protection.
Mykolab.com is a Swiss based email provider that has been called the gold standard of private email (as well as calender and address book) providers. Since it’s based in Switzerland, you know your communications are adequately protected by the laws of the Swiss government and, as MyKolab argues themselves, “politics trump any encryption.” On top of that, MyKolab is based on Kontact, an open source software that ensures that there is nothing malicious put into their code. The ‘downside’ to MyKolab is that it is a paid service, but understandably so given the demand and costs of hosting servers in Switzerland. However, they offer an email-only option, which substantially reduces the cost for an account, as well as a student discount. I myself am paying a little under $5 for 5 GB of storage.
Unseen.Is is like MyKolab, but is based in Iceland. On top of their email services, Unseen also provides anonymous messaging and video call services. Iceland has strong privacy laws, and also has a good record to standing up to other nations over legal disputes such as copyright. Like Tutanota, Unseen offers a free account, but at a small size: only 50 MB.
At the End of the Day:
Remember, there is no guarantee when it comes to privacy on the Internet, but it’s always best to protect yours as much as possible. This means that things like common sense, not giving out your personal information, and keeping key data (like passwords) protected are often the best steps anyone can take to protect their privacy. I hope that this short guide will help those relatively unfamiliar with technology and software to be pointed in the right direction, and as always, practice strong discretion before installing anything on your computer.