Over the last few months I have been on a journey to better privacy. During that time I’ve gone over search, browsers, social networks/messaging, digital assistants, and email. This is not an exhaustive list of all the areas where online privacy is concerned, but it’s the primary ones that had not yet been addressed in my life. Now that we’ve gone over each of those areas, and I’ve had weeks to months to live with those decisions, I want to wrap things up with the conclusions I’ve come to over the course of this journey.
In my mind you have a range of choices when it comes to privacy. As with all things in life there is a pendulum, and you can choose to live on either side of that or somewhere in between. Let’s go over the basic options at each of those levels.
If you want complete privacy online, below are your options.
- Don’t use the internet.
That’s it… I’m not kidding. If you want to avoid being snooped on then you literally cannot touch the internet in any way. This isn’t limited to computers and tablets. You should avoid using any type of electronic payments, opting for cash only. Any type of phone usage can be tracked as well. Honestly, I’m not sure you can fully avoid being tracked without going completely off grid (and maybe not even then).
Take home point: if you’re going to use the internet then you’re going to forgo privacy on some level.
So you’ve decided that living in the woods and drinking your own urine is too high a price for privacy? Good choice, but that means you’ll be interacting with the internet on some level. Maybe you still want absolutely as much privacy as possible, regardless what that means in the way of inconvenience. Your options will probably look something like this:
- Use an operating system that doesn’t signal back to its maker. (Probably a flavor of Linux, but not all of them are considered privacy conscious.)
- Whole-home VPN (I didn’t go over this, but basically you configure your router to funnel all traffic through a tunnel.)
- TOR (This is a system that somewhat anonymizes your internet traffic.)
- Alternate DNS settings (avoid using your ISP’s or Google’s)
- Web browser that uses all the addons I wrote about, plus others like NoScript.
- Move your email to an encrypted service like ProtonMail.
- Use a password manager, probably an offline one.
- If you want to be super safe, do all this from a virtual machine on your computer instead of on the computer itself.
If it hasn’t become clear yet, this is a giant hassle. Aside from the time and frustration that will go into setting it all up, your network speeds will also be slower and you will constantly (CONSTANTLY) run into issues with sites not working correctly. And here is the kicker, you may still be tracked. Technology is always changing and we’re often not even aware of the most advanced methods until years after they’ve been used. You can totally take this approach, and there are people that do, but be prepared to put in the work. It may also make you a gleaming target as someone who is trying to hide something.
If the above approach is more involved than you are ready for, there are ways to increase your privacy while still achieving a reasonable level of usability. This is basically the balance I’ve been trying to strike throughout the series, not being completely locked down but not throwing my data at people either. Here is what I see as the best approach:
- Use a search provider that doesn’t track you, like DuckDuckGo.
- Make smart browser choices, and enhance them with privacy addons.
- Only use social networks and their messengers in contained situations, or not at all.
- Know how your digital assistant stores and uses your recordings and configure accordingly, or avoid them altogether.
- Never send anything sensitive in email. Use encrypted services instead, and maybe avoid email completely.
- Be mindful of what sites you visit, and if they use encryption (https).
- Use a password manager (LastPass is my favorite).
- Use a VPN service when traveling or on public networks.
In my mind this allows you to interact with the internet, but with safeguards in place. It’s the sweet spot.
The other side of the pendulum is not caring about privacy at all. Many (maybe most) take this approach. They either aren’t conscious of the amount of data they’re giving up or assume there is no use trying to stop it. This is certainly the easiest way to approach things, but not one I can agree with. Firstly, your information is obviously valuable. The companies trying to syphon it are making billions off of it. Secondly, you have no idea how long they will keep the data and what they’ll do with it, either now or in the future. Privacy is a human right, and the onus is on us to fight for our own.
Honestly, this journey hasn’t gone completely as I expected. There were a few areas where I started out with an assumption as to what I would do and changed my mind as I researched it. Also, things are constantly changing. I made some posts and later had to return to update with a different conclusion after reconsideration. In the end I think it’s less about choosing a specific set of technologies and more about having a privacy mindset. Look deeper into offerings, not focussing on only features and price but also how they are respecting your privacy. Make sure you’re using secure services. Know that social networks, among other things, are free for a reason. You are the product.
But also, don’t forget to have fun. There is a lot of really great stuff out there and a wealth of opportunity on the internet. Keep your safeguards in place but don’t let fear limit you.