I can’t think how often I’ve heard that sentence. In any case, here’s what Edward Snowden has to say about it, “Arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” So, if you’ve also found yourself saying or thinking it at some point, please continue here, because I’m sure you will have a different view when I’m done.
To preface: I don’t want to lecture you or persuade you to live in a windowless cubbyhole with a blanket on your head, leaving you to operate your PC without an internet connection. Of course, you can take things to far (which, incidentally, isn’t the worst thing to do in this context) but for most users it’s not really practicable. However, over the last few years, it got very easy to take a step closer to more privacy with some simple tools and rules. Which is want I want to show you now.
Back to our topic:
Aside from the importance of privacy in today’s society and politics – this topic is more up-to-date than anything, considering what’s happening daily around the world – the topic of privacy is also a very important issue in our own daily digital life. Unfortunately, it often gets ignored because it supposedly takes too much time and knowledge.
But what if I told you that every email you send could potentially be viewed by many different people like a postcard? If you got a sinking feeling now, because you lately sent a password that you use on different sites to your sister and now think, “but I don’t want that”, you’re in luck. Here are a few tips on how to largely avoid leaving a digital footprint and on how to improve your behavior on the internet regarding your privacy.
The comparison between email and postcards is not all that wrong. If you send a “normal” email, it has to go through many different networks to reach the recipient. Everyone on the way can view the content – almost exactly like a postcard!
Surfing the web is the same: if you send your data over unencrypted connections they have to make a few detours until they get to the recipient. as well Because of that, you might want to look into sending files which you wouldn’t want to make public over a secure connection. It does take a little time to read up on all the different possibilities and various methods of email encryption, but it pays off in the end.
Also, you might want to choose a messenger (for example Signal) where you have end-to-end encryption. Thus, not even the provider can read your messages.
This section alone is worth more than one blog entry, but the gist is pretty much this: if you’ve got the choice, it’s advisable to always look for a secured connection.
Other little tools
For most web browsers, there are add-ons which you can install. I don’t want to say that I have found the perfect tools, but some of these little helpers make it easier for me to surf the web. I’m also thankful for any advice or addition 🙂
By now, I think most of us have installed an adblocker. Many use Adblock Plus, which isn’t a bad idea, but as soon as the companies behind such software begin to charge you for “Pre-Whitelistet Ads”, the system starts to break down. uBlock Origin is a good option. But maybe also think about making an exception for sites you often use to help the webmaster paying his webspace 😉
Ghostery uses the slogan “The internet sucks. Ghostery makes it suck less.” That’s a pretty ballsy promise! The background: the many tracking-frameworks out there have turned us into glass surfers. Ghostery helps you to deactivate or more accurately hide from them. At best, you get some privacy back and maybe even a little speed boost while surfing.
This add-on helps you surf only the encrypted part of the web. In addition to the unencrypted HTTP connection, most sites actually also provide an encrypted HTTPS connection. Oftentimes they give you a hard time using it though, because you surf the HTTP site by default or static links direct you to the unencrypted site. HTTPS Everywhere is pretty persistent in trying to connect you to the secured site.
These add-ons help you identify shady sites. The “Web of Trust” add-on shows a small circle next to the links and search results in your browser. Sounds a little bit annoying, I know, but you get used to it. The circle changes color between red, orange and green depending on the user rating of a given site. So if you are ever frantically looking through some search results, you may skip the red and orange ones, at least at first. You can also read exactly why the site is rated as “dangerous”. It’s never a guarantor for safe or unsafe sites (you can easily fake ratings), but it is a first sign that maybe something is wrong.
The “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read” add-on works in a similar way. It warns the user if the terms of service of a site (which, of course, all of us always read very carefully ;)) contain passages which actually should be read carefully (for example if a site wants to use your photos for advertising).
Changing (privacy) settings manually
Consider this: you register on a social media platform and want to tell everybody what’s happening right now, so you post a quick status update. Suddenly you get a notification saying “Max Someone likes your post”. Nice for Max, but you don’t have Max in your friends list and you don’t want Max to see this post. (What the hell, Max!?) A quick look through your settings tells you that the default post reach is set to “friends of friends” or even “public”. Because of that, always go through the settings immediately after creating a new account. Even with new programs or operating systems (*cough* Windows 10 *cough*) absolutely always choose the “advanced” installation instead of the “basic” one. Take your time and look through all the things, the setup wants to install.
ProTipp: Also uncheck the boxes saying things like “I want to get emails about your super fancy products” and “Yes, I want to help support the product by automatically sending you all my extremely personal and private data”.
“Don’t use the same password everywhere!” Everyone knows you shouldn’t do that. Everyone does it anyway. I also can’t remember 1024 passwords and used to take the same passwords for many sites. But once you do take a leap and use a password manager like I do now, you won’t be able to remember why you were ever stressing about something like this. With every new log-in I get a new secure password from my password-manager, which then also stores it in a secure way. If I want to log in, it takes exactly 2 seconds to do that. I’m safe and I don’t have to remember a different password for every site. I don’t have a recommendation for a specific password manager, but there are many testers out there who have put all the available solutions through their paces.
As you can see, I could ramble on and on about this. If you want to look deeper into this matter yourself, make sure to cover the possibility of setting up a VPN (virtual private network) or take a look at the “Let’s encrypt” movement.
All in all, what can be said is that there definitely are some helpful tools, which can provide privacy in everyday life. The best thing to do is take a critical look at things and be aware of the risk. If nothing else, it often helps to think about the business models of various services and how they make money. For many (not all of them!) the following holds true: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”