Digital Life: a modicum of privacy

This post contains my advice for maintaining a reasonable amount of privacy without reducing the utility and entertainment we get from the Internet. It is no news that governments are pushing back against our right of privacy and we should also be concerned by tracking by both corporations and organized crime. Privacy is a basic human right and once rights are lost or reduced in scope they can be very difficult to get back.

To start with I believe that everyone should have the privacy enhanced Tor web browser installed. Tor was developed originally by the US Navy in support of journalists and other people living in countries with oppressive regimes. I strongly recommend using Tor for the following reasons:

  • Research any medical conditions that you have.
  • You are interested in buying a product and you don't want advertisers to put ads on web sites you visit because you would rather make independent unbiased purchasing decisions.
  • Visit any sites for any reason that you would not like a future employer to know that you visited. We all look at odd information on the web out of curiosity, research, or for whatever reasons.
  • The availability of privacy enhancing tools is important and at least occasional use by the general public of tools like Tor help to legitimize these tools.
I don't think for a minute that privacy enhancement tools prevent major government actors like the NSA and GCHQ from accessing our private data. It slows them down a little, which I argue is a good thing, but does not stop them. For the general public the real benefits come from stopping (or slowing down) access to your data by corporations and organized crime. I think that it would be naive to think that organized crime does not have the interest and the ability to collect private data.

Private cloud storage: I use SpiderOak but there are several other good safe storage options.

When I was a kid I enjoyed writing in a diary. I sort of do the same thing as an adult, writing many short categorized notes about things I want to do, personal philosophy and spirituality, ideas for writing projects, travel notes, etc. I think that if it is worthwhile seriously thinking about something then it is worthwhile making notes. I now use the simple text markdown format for these notes - writing notes helps organize our thoughts and later quickly find old ideas we took the time to journal. For years I used cloud services like Google Docs + Keep and Microsoft OneNote. I am mostly transitioning to using secure and private cloud storage and as it turns out, well organized notes in markdown are as convenient as storing my ideas and notes other less secure cloud services.

Online banking: I prefer to use (relatively) locked down devices like an iPad or a Chromebook for online banking. I think it is less likely that these devices are compromised than Windows, Linux, or Mac laptops. And don't forget to use a private mode window in your browser when doing online banking, access sensitive government web sites like Affordable Health Care, etc.

What about using social media? I enjoy social media, especially Google+ and Twitter and I use all social media to shamelessly plug the books that I write. I use a simple trick for using social media and using Google search: I use the Chrome web browser for these tasks and use either Firefox or Safari for all other web browsing. As far as tracking activities go, this helps prevent information leakage. It is a bit of a nuisance: when I see a web link on social media I would like to look at, instead of clicking the link I right-click the link to copy the URI and use a keyboard shortcut to switch to Firefox or Safari and paste in the link. Yes, this takes about 4 or 5 seconds an is a little inconvenient.

Governments and corporations use strong encryption and so should you. Encryption drives safe information flows and is vital to all of the world economies. Encryption can not have "back doors" because of the threat to the global economy and that of companies and individuals if organized crime (when I talk about organized crime I am also including organizations that others might call terrorists) gained access to back door encryption keys. The damage this would cause is unimaginable. Fortunately many consumer computing devices support encrypted file storage out of the box: modern Android phones, iPhones, iPads, Mac OS X, Ubuntu Linux, and the professional versions of Windows 10. Use encryption - it is well worth the effort.


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