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Retake your privacy

The US can read your emails because you let them. Demand privacy – but take it back first.

The way we use the internet is inherently insecure, so while keeping a big-brotherly eye on a whole population might require the digital muscle of the NSA, any half-decent nation state can peek at your secrets should they want to. So can a good hacker, or anyone who knows how to hire one. And however uninteresting you might be, Google, Facebook and others feverishly gather all the info they can on your life, automatically and legally.

Luckily there are a number of easy steps you can take to ensure your online privacy. Perfect security requires extreme diligence, but with a few simple programmes and habits you can drastically reduce who could sneak into your stuff, and increase the efforts they’d have to go through to do so.

Of course, we shouldn’t take it lying down that either the NSA or any one else should be able to look at our emails or online activities, however easy it is to do so -  but while fighting the surveillance state is a political battle, there’s no reason to leave your own front door open to make a point.

I wonder, how well would envelopes that became transparent under magical federal candlelight have sold in 1750? 1800? 1850? 1900? 1950? 

(Whistleblower Edward Snowden in an online comment in 2004)

When you send emails, you’re using these transparent envelopes, despite the fact that opaque ones are perfectly available and free. Email encryption using PGP or GPG  ensures that your message is gibberish in transit, its meaning only being unlocked by your own private key. It also has the added value of authenticating the message; emails can be faked, encrypted messages can’t.

Encrypting our emails should be standard for anyone who ever sends secrets. There are several free options out there, I use GPGTools for Mac, for Windows there’s Enigmail. Encryption plugins for instant messaging are also available, the most popular being Pidgin

The drawbacks: both sender and recipient need to use it, and if your computers are compromised, so are the messages.

Our world wide web undertakings are also out in the open: your internet service provider and anyone with access to it can monitor all your activities, and on the web you can be linked back to your ISP and IP, which can be directly traced to you. Your browser’s secret or incognito mode will only help you not leave traces on your own computer, and does little to protect you in the wilderness. But other tools are available.  

Virtual Private Network – pretty safe and very convenient. You connect to a VPN, a commercial service that puts a watertight hull between you and the open net. You can encrypt any traffic between the VPN and your own computer, so that no-one can see what you’re doing or censor it. 

On the ”outside” of the VPN the activity is unencrypted, but cannot be linked to you, as tracing it back leads only to the VPN’s server. A good provider doesn’t keep logs, so there’s nothing to turn over if they’re asked, and they’ll have servers in several countries so that you can conceal which nation you’re in. You do need to make sure your browser's privacy settings are sound as well. 

The drawbacks: it costs a bit of money, can slow your connection down a little bit, and you’ll have to take the VPN provider on their word.

Tor - the only choice if anonymity is paramount. Tor routes your activity, encrypted, through a worldwide volunteer network, concealing your location and identity. The Tor Browser Bundle is the easiest and best bet for when you want to be as safe as you can, and combining it with a VPN adds an extra layer. (The most hardcore might want to check out Onion Pi.) It’s free too.

The downside: it can be very, very slow.

If you like to keep your searches private, DuckDuckGo looks the other way, but it can’t really compete with Google when your hunt becomes complex. StartPage however Googles for you, and brings you back the results without revealing to our digital overlords who you are. 

Your computer can be stolen or investigated by authorities, for example when crossing national borders, and for that there’s harddrive encryption like TrueCrypt. For extra security in ”plausible deniability”, some recommend making an encrypted disk with another encrypted disk within it, as well as some smutty pictures or films, the reason being that it’s technically impossible to discover whether the second encrypted area exists, and the dodgy material serves as a fine explanation for why you might use encryption in the first place…

With these precautions, good password habits, due care and a reluctance to share personal information - you can sleep pretty good at night. Just don’t talk in your sleep. 

About the author

Magnus Nome is a former Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy (May 2012 - July 2014). Before he joined oD he worked as a writer, journalist and broadcaster in Oslo, and was Editor-in-Chief of Teddy TV. Twitter: @magnusnome 

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