With the leak of classified NSA documents and their entailing revelations, Edward Snowden has become a household name. He single-handedly caused millions of people to rethink their electronic lives – and their assumptions of privacy. Now, those people (and businesses) are scrambling to find solutions to a problem they didn’t know existed, or chose to remain blissfully unaware, a number of months ago.
There have been numerous blog posts and documents about enhancing your systems to increase privacy protection, and I thought that I would summarize many of them from the perspective of someone who works in the industry. The sections of this article are organized in order of complexity (and tinfoil hattiness). The easiest and most basic measures will be in section 1 while the most complex and restrictive measures will be in the last.
Before we begin, it is important to talk a bit about expected threats and mitigations. Mitigations are simply the measures you take to deal with a threat satisfactorily – Hopefully completely, but not always. A threat is anything that is considered an opponent to your security and privacy in this case. It is important to figure out what kind of threat you are dealing with and take the appropriate actions to mitigate it.
For example, mitigations that stop basic malware and bots from getting your information may not be as effective against, say, a skilled and motivated attacker – such as an NSA operative, or hacker, or cleverly-designed system.
It is unlikely, honestly, if they really wanted your information, that you could mitigate the NSA threat. The NSA is an enormous government agency that is well-funded and extremely motivated. They employ intelligent and educated people who do this for a living. The goal is to raise the difficulty in tracking you just enough to exceed the minimum effort level that their automated systems will take for granted. Automated systems include bots and malware, along with other classified technologies, that gather information automatically – with no human in the loop. These threats we can mitigate.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive in.
[Disclaimer]: These suggestions are a combination of sources (listed at the end) and my own. As such, this information is not fully my original content and I did not create it. I am simply listing it here for your convenience. Sources are cited as to the origin of suggestions.
Section 1: Basic Measures
Tin Foil Hat Level: “I read an article once about privacy and it scared me. I need a list of things I may, or may not, do.”
Threats: Basic email scams, scraping bots, potential job prospects, your mom
Don’t post identifying information if you don’t have to. In fact, don’t provide any information that isn’t needed. So you want to sign up for a music website? Why do they require you to include your mother’s maiden name, age, location, phone number, and birthdate? This includes mobile apps!
Google yourself. See what comes up. Try Bing or other search engines. If something comes up that you don’t like, try to take it offline and add new content with the same keywords that you used to find the offending item. It takes time. There are professionals that do this.
And lastly, don’t share passwords and account information with anyone!
No, that prince from Nigeria doesn’t need your account info to deposit millions of cash. No, you won’t win a free trip to Hawaii if you click that link that goes to http://www.haha_i_got_you.com. No, you shouldn’t look at that attachment from a person you’ve never heard of before – from an email address you’ve never seen before. If the deal looks too good to be true, it almost always is. Sorry.
Now that wasn’t too hard! This works decently if your information isn’t on the internet already. Unfortunately, if you want to protect any information that is already online, this may not help.
Section 2: Novice Measures
Tin Foil Hat Level: “I read this article about privacy and the NSA and I need some help to protect my information! …Only if it’s not too intrusive though.”
Threats: most bots, scams, most malware, viruses, basic hacking attempts, account username/password attacks
OK, so you are already doing the basic measures but still don’t feel safe. Fair enough. There are lots of threats out there that can easily get past those mitigations if your information is already online. Let’s take it to the next level.
If you haven’t already, install antivirus software, malware protection, and cleaning tools.
For Windows, I use Spybot Search and Destroy 1.6.2 (or Malwarebytes), CCleaner, and Windows Security Essentials (or Windows Defender). Spybot does not prevent malware from getting on your computer, it simply removes it once it is on there. CCleaner cleans up your temporary files including cookies, etc. MS Security Essentials is an integrated system that “guards against viruses, spyware, and other malicious software. It provides real-time protection for your home or small business PCs”. Really, any antivirus software will be good, but you can look at reviews to see which one best suits your type of usage.
The key here is to layer. Defense in depth. MS Security Essentials may not get everything so you need Spybot or some other mitigation.
Update often. Honestly, you should be doing this already. This is a security tip, but security and privacy are inherently linked as preventing a breach in one helps prevent breaches in the other. This includes (for Windows) Windows Update and any software that you have installed (Java, Flash, browsers, etc).
Make sure you have a firewall. Windows has one built in. At least use that one.
Create strong passwords. Yeah the website asks for minimum 8 characters, but really, computers are wicked-fast. Brute-forcing passwords is getting easier. And there’s no reason not to make stronger passwords including longer strings of characters, numbers, capitals, etc. Also, stop using the same password for all of your accounts. If someone hacks one account, they get the keys to all accounts. Bad news.
Configure your browsers to delete history and cookies on close. This prevents a lot of cookies from hanging around after you’re done with them for no reason.While you’re at it, take a look at the security and privacy settings in your browser. Make sure that things are not being tracked and that add-ons can’t be installed without your consent.
Install a well-reputed security app on your smartphone. Malware for mobile devices is on the rise and you don’t want to get caught up in it.
Try to use HTTPS as much as possible (will show https://www.google.com instead of http://www.google.com), and learn what a certificate is, what it is used for in HTTPS, and why it is important. Avoid accepting less-than-reputable certificates.
Start reducing the amount of information you provide to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Google Plus, etc. Does that information really need to be on there? Here’s a question, why is Facebook worth so much if it provides a free service? How about, why does Google give you so much for free (e-mail, documents, social media, etc) without charging anything? Fun fact: Google is an advertising company. A note about Google: “You are not their customer, you are their product”.
Section 3: Intermediate Measures
Tin Foil Hat Level: “The NSA is out there and I need to protect myself!”
Threats: bots, scams, malware, viruses, hacking attempts, account username/password attacks, XSS, Session Hijacking
Start installing browser add-ons!
Install “HTTPS Everywhere”, which forces HTTPS sessions with all websites that you go to. What does this do? HTTPS is the protocol for secure communication over the internet. HTTPS ensures that attackers can’t listen in on your communicaitions over the internet.
Install NoScript to your browser. NoScript will default-deny all scripts from running until you allow them. This can be very annoying at first, but once you have allowed the “elements” from the sites that you usually go to, it’s not that bad – Just make sure to check the icon if a movie isn’t playing or a page doesn’t load correctly. Also, you get to see what, exactly, is run behind the scenes on all of your favourite websites!
Install “AdBlock Plus” to your browser. This – you guessed it – blocks ads. Ads can be the vehicle that delivers malware. Don’t let them near you.
Install “Self-Destructing Cookies” to your browser. This add-on removes cookies as soon as they are not required.
Install the “Disconnect” add-on to your browser and to your phone. “Disconnect lets you visualize & block the invisible websites that track you”.
Install the “Better Privacy” add-on to your browser. “Remove or manage a new and uncommon kind of cookies, better known as LSO’s. The BetterPrivacy safeguard offers various ways to handle Flash-cookies set by Google, YouTube, Ebay and others…”
Your web browser is the window to the internet. It can be a benefit as well as a curse. These add-ons mitigate much of that “curse” aspect.
Section 4: Advanced and Restrictive Measures
Tin Foil Hat Level: “The NSA is just the tip of the iceburg, man! They’re watching everything! Nobody’s safe!!!”. Also, people complement you on the size of your tinfoil hat. You are the tinfoil-hattiest!
bots, scams, malware, viruses, hacking attempts, account username/password attacks, XSS, session hijacking, motivated attackers, attackers who may be able to gain physical access to your computer
These measures will require technical skills, and they will restrict what you can do online significantly, but they will provide the best defense of your privacy in comparison to the previous measures suggested.
Install ‘Replicant’ or ‘CyanogenMod’ on your phone. These are replacement operating systems for your phone. They will give you far better control of what information is sent to ‘the outside’.
Install SecDroid (for Android). This app controls what apps can use the internet.
Use F-Droid instead of the Google Play Store. The goal is to avoid Google products.
Look into making a custom case/”glove” for your phone that blocks out electronic signals (http://killyourphone.com/)
Use Chromium (Open-source browser – is not Google Chrome), or Mozilla Firefox – with the add-ons suggested above.
Ditch Windows and Mac altogether. Go Linux: Ubuntu (a linux operating system) is a great alternative. There may be a bit of a learning curve, but it is not as bad as you may think! There are plenty of distributions of linux to suit your needs.
Encrypt your hard drive. Look into TrueCrypt or other similar tools. Encryption ensures that, even if they get your physical computer, the attacker can not access your files without your password.
Look into using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) such as those provided by “Private Internet Access” (PIA), and see if they are right for you.
Look into “The Onion Router” (TOR). See if it is right for you.
Use Chromium (Open-source browser – is not Google Chrome), or Mozilla Firefox – with the add-ons suggested above.
Wrapping It Up
Many of these suggestions are extreme, and the list is far from complete. These are simply a great place to start no matter the size of you tinfoil hat.
I won’t judge.
Helpful hints about privacy from Microsoft: http://www.microsoft.com/security/online-privacy/prevent.aspx
Microsoft Security Essentials: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-CA/windows/security-essentials-download
Detailed discussion about advanced mitigations for privacy: http://www.reddit.com/r/privacy/comments/1x5c2r/rebuilding_my_privacy_from_the_ground_up_looking/
“HTTPS Everywhere” browser addon: https://www.eff.org/https-everywhere
Private Internet Access: https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/
The Onion Router (TOR): https://www.torproject.org/