8 Steps to Securing Online Privacy
Last week, I set out my reasons for expecting serious civil liberties and privacy problems under a Trump presidency. I strongly recommended that you take steps to protect yourself — steps I’m going to outline shortly.
We now live under conditions that would make the great authoritarians of yore salivate with envy. Government’s capacity to monitor us has never been greater. And, as that capacity advances, politicians and bureaucrats adjust their understanding of privacy and constitutional liberties in ways that allow them to use it.
The only thing that prevents them from defining those things out of existence entirely is the residual respect for constitutionality held by those in key positions. As I argued last week, evidence of such respect is very thin indeed in the incoming Trump administration.
That’s why, love him or hate him, you need to be prepared…
Privacy Is Your Responsibility
No matter who’s in charge, government always finds a way to justify new methods to invade our privacy.
For example, the Justice Department’s legal rationale for monitoring our emails and phone calls is based on the old-fashioned postal letter. Back when snail mail was king, courts ruled that any information on the outside of a letter — addressee, return address, place of posting — was in the public domain, and therefore available to government investigators. That’s why the post office scans and records every single piece of mail in the U.S. … every day.
That logic now applies to the metadata of every call you make and every email you send. Soon it may apply to your Web browsing history as well. I simply don’t trust Trump’s key appointees to resist that logic. So, here’s what I recommend:
- Get Signal and/or WhatsApp for mobile messages: Signal is a sophisticated Swiss messaging app that fully encrypts all your text messages. It requires both parties to use it, so it isn’t ideal for everything. Nevertheless, Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, Signal’s developer, says there has been a huge expansion in their user base since the election. So you’ll probably find more Signalers on your contact list as time goes on.WhatsApp is an alternative that encrypts your messaging and VoIP calls. It isn’t as secure as Signal because it’s owned by Facebook, whose approach to court orders is uncertain, but for ordinary purposes it will prevent real-time monitoring of your communications.
- Encrypt your computer’s hard drive: As I describe in Privacy Code 2.0, full disk encryption makes the contents of your computer totally unintelligible to anyone without the password. For example, if you are stopped by Homeland Security upon return to the U.S., your laptop can be searched before you officially enter the U.S. But if it’s encrypted, no law says you must divulge the password.Both Apple and Windows computers have automatic encryption built in if you activate it. That’s fine for most purposes, but if you want added security, a free, easy to use open-source encryption utility can be found here.
- Get a password manager: Using secure apps and utilities like those above means having passwords — lots of them. Don’t write them on your palm. Get a password manager that stores them (encrypted, of course) in one place and generates and even changes passwords for you.Personally, I use Dashlane. Other good password managers are 1Password and KeePass. I don’t recommend LastPass, another popular one, because they allowed themselves to be hacked last year. That’s just not good enough.
- Use two-factor authentication: Most email programs, cloud storage utilities, banking apps, social media and other sensitive applications these days offer two-factor authentication (TFA). TFA requires that every time you sign in, you go through a secondary layer of security: a code to enter at login that is sent to your phone via text message. Some offer such codes via email, but don’t use it. If hackers gain access to your email, they can get access to your accounts by having TFA codes sent to them.
- Use HTTPS Everywhere: My friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation developed a browser plug-in for Firefox and Chrome that forces websites you visit to use the most secure connection protocol. If encryption is available on the site you visit, your connection to the site will be encrypted, and you will be protected from various forms of surveillance and hacking during that session.
- Don’t rely on your browser’s “incognito mode” to do things it wasn’t meant to do: Browsers like Chrome, Safari, Opera, Firefox and Microsoft Edge allow you to start a browsing session that doesn’t record anything you do during that session. Any websites visited, cookies downloaded or other connection stats will be wiped clean when you end the session.“Private” browsing modes thus protect you from searches of your computer. But unless you’re connecting to an encrypted site (via HTTPS Everywhere, for example), whoever operates the site can collect all your browsing data anyway since it is recorded by the site’s server.
- Use DuckDuckGo for sensitive searches: If you’re not convinced that Google’s motto “do no evil” is anything more than a marketing ploy, use DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine that doesn’t record your searches or anything else about you. It produces great results, so you won’t really lose much by using it instead of Google.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN): As my privacy report explains, a VPN is the best all-around protection you can get on the Internet, because it encrypts everything you do, including your identity and location. VPNs can be used on both your computers and your phones. That’s important, because as Eva Galperin, global-policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says, “Logging into airport Wi-Fi without using a VPN is the unprotected sex of the Internet.”As a bonus, you can also use a VPN to spoof your location and gain access to region-locked streaming content, like Amazon Prime, when you are abroad. The only downside is that they slow your connection a bit. VPNs are provided by specialized hosting companies that charge about $5 a month for the service. A good selection can be found here.
These techniques make some or all of your electronic communications and data instantly invisible to anyone. They use levels of encryption that would take a bank of supercomputers hundreds of years to break.
When it comes to protecting your privacy, now is the time … because afterward is too late.
Editor, The Bauman Letter