Every time I bring up cyber security or government surveillance, I get the same look. Feigned interest. Fake smile. Glazed eyes. Eye-rolling. I know the looks well. (Granted, I’m not even a cyber security expert. I consider myself an amateur enthusiast at best.) Even though I’m the one attempting to babble about VPNS or tracking analytics, I know how I sound. Paranoid. Maybe crazy. A little unhinged. Chicken Little-esque. Because there’s no reason to care about internet privacy if you have nothing to hide? Right? Wrong. (Obviously.)
As Edward Snowden said: “Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” (Yes, that is my favorite Snowden quote in case you were wondering.)
I wanted to start this article off with a concise but informative explanation of current cyber security threats and policies. But even a search into how secure my iPhone call logs and text messages are caused confusion. (They are not secure, but may be more secure than other platforms, seemed to be the prevailing theory.) I saw articles about Apple storing call logs in the iCloud and arguments about whether SMS logs are kept for surveillance purposes or to help troubleshoot the technology. Recently Congress passed a law to repeal Obama-era protections that kept service providers from being able to sell customer data to third parties. (Data like your browsing history and what apps you use.) A hour later, I stopped my search even more concerned and confounded than when I began.
But, the true way to bypass all of this confusion and risk is to just use more secure services. We can argue all day about whether or not there are nefarious forces at work, but if your information isn’t available, then the motivations of the people trying to find it are moot. Below are my three favorite simple and easy (and free!) steps to better cyber security.
For browsing and searching:
The battle over which browser is the best continues to be fought every day. I personally like and use Firefox. Its open source (so people can continuously improve the code) and has some of the most straightforward and easy to use security features of the mainstream browser group. (There are plenty of more niche and minimalist browser options out there for those of you who want even more security.) For more information on Firefox (and a run-down of some of the security features you can enable), read PC Magazine’s review from Fall 2016 where they actually awarded Firefox the Editor’s Choice for browsers.
There is nothing I love more than being able to instantly find the answer to any question on the internet. How old is Dolly Parton? Where was Teddy Roosevelt born? What is the best way to cook broccoli? All questions that a search engine can answer. But, please stop using Google. Please. They track you. Constantly. (Why does Google need to know what I want to make for dinner? Spoiler alert: they don’t.) And soon Google has a dossier on you more complete than the one the Russians have on Trump. But, unlike Trump, you can take control of your own destiny. Stop using Google. Once again (for the people in the back), stop using Google. Use DuckDuckGo, an unusually named search engine that does not track you. Plus, It has a free and simple add-on that works with Firefox to make DuckDuckGo your default search engine. Two clicks (maybe three) and you’ve already exponentially decreased the amount of information being collected about you.
For texting and phone calls:
I (and Edward Snowden) recommend Signal. It’s free, it’s easy and (you’ll see everyone who writes about Signal say this) it’s open source so people can actually inspect the code. You can send texts, pictures, and make calls all from your existing phone number. The only downside is that the person you’re communicating with also has to have the Signal app. (But you heard me when I said it was free, right?) Obviously you won’t be able to get everyone you know to start using Signal. (Or maybe you will, I’m not here to underestimate you.) I know I won’t. So, I’ve started with convincing the people that I communicate with the most. Simple, free, and encrypted, it can’t get much better than that. (Except if the desktop version becomes reality, then it would be even better.)
If you, like me, you have to keep Gmail (aka another inadequately unencrypted, Google tracking device) because groups or workplaces still use it, you can always have a second (and secure) email service on the side. Proton Mail is Swiss based service making some pretty big claims about their level of security. Most reviews of Proton Mail are from when they first launched in 2014, so obviously those are outdated. It is clear they had something of an inconsistent start and faced some issues. Now, however, they seem to have gotten themselves together. The consensus seems to be that Proton is more secure than mainstream email providers, although it still has some improvements that could be made. But the service is free (at least for the basic level) and the interface is simple to use. (Like with browsers, there are more complex and secure products out there, but this is a good first step away from mainstream products.)
Maybe I’ve convinced you to make some changes. Maybe I’ve convinced you of nothing. Either way, don’t take my word for it. The internet is full of books, articles, courses, and more that can teach you all about this stuff. If nothing else, start learning about the websites you use regularly and what they do with your data. (Seriously, Facebook and Twitter are not your friends when it comes to privacy and data.) Now, I’m not saying you should completely remove yourself from those two platforms, (even though I highly recommend it). But you should at least know what information you’re willingly giving up and what information they are taking.
Some opinion pieces may tell you that by using some of these secure services, you are drawing more attention to yourself and your online activities. I am not advocating that any of these are 100% perfect (or that you should do anything illegal with them), but that logic seems to suggest that surveillance is the new normal. As if appeasement has ever led to anything but more abuses of power. The first step to fighting back is knowing what’s going on in the privacy policies of sites you use most often and working to lessen their access.