Privacy is powerYou either have it or you don’t, a netizen’s guide
In the age of smartphones under pillows, screenshots, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, location trackers and free platforms that make money off our data: privacy is rapidly becoming elusive.
“Privacy is no longer a social norm,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying. This is the same man who, together with his wife, purchased a home in Palo Alto, as well as four residential properties surrounding it, just to protect their privacy.
It is not that people have changed their views on privacy after getting on social media, we are simply unaware of the repercussions of sharing information with a website. And even if we do, many of us will not know where to start when it comes to protecting personal data and reducing our digital footprint.
The truth is: the more private and secure you want to become, the more inconvenient your life will be. Start with your browser and Internet habits, manage your social media presence better, migrate to privacy-focused messaging platforms, control your smartphone and laptop (don’t give them access to everything), steer clear from IoT devices.
Privacy is like yoga: it is not just a discipline, it is a lifestyle. If you are willing to give it a shot, let us get started:
BECOME A PASSWORD PRO
Avoid your browser’s in-built password saving and managing features. Avoid weak passwords, or re-using the same password everywhere just because it is convenient. If hackers break through your common password, they will likely get access to all your accounts at once. Have trouble remembering all your passwords? Use a password manager, an online application that stores your login details in an encrypted vault (under a master password) and generates complex passwords for you. Some of the best free password managers out there are LastPass, NordPass, RememBear, Bitwarden and Sticky Password. I personally use LastPass because it’s secure, packed with useful features and easy to use.
HIKE UP YOUR SECURITY BARRIERS
‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’ ‘Which elementary school did you attend?’ and ‘What is your favourite food?’ are questions any Facebook friend of yours could answer. Do not answer any Security Question honestly, instead create cryptic answers with an inside joke. Additionally, make sure your WiFi router is protected, use WPA2 security, and enable two-factor authentication for everything, even if it adds a few extra seconds to your sign-in process.
Regarding fingerprint log-ins and facial recognition features, biometric authentication and biometric identification are exceptionally secure systems, but that does not make them 100% safe. If those databases are compromised, a hacker could get access to your biometric data, or they could be used for surveillance. While this data is more vulnerable than passwords, the good news is, such high-profile data is usually secured on a stronger level as well.
CONTROL PRIVACY SETTINGS
Disable everything in your Google ‘My Activity’ page. Do not give web platforms information such as your home address and disable location tracking if you can help it. When using social media, utilise the Privacy Settings to strengthen control. Do not befriend strangers, avoid public posts and avoid commenting on public platforms if you do not have your personal data on limited access.
USE ENCRYPTED APPS
Unfortunately, this means that good old SMS is not a safe way to communicate at all. Signal Messenger is gaining popularity for its privacy-focused approach, but bear in mind that WhatsApp does still have end-to-end encryption and the option to make profile pictures and status private. Studies show that most people do not bother visiting the Privacy Settings of apps they download. Sticking to the default settings of the app is common practice, which often is not the smartest, most secure way to use it.
Another logical argument is that leaving WhatsApp is not the answer if you are still using Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts and Zoom – the last of which has been dealing with security scandals while also experiencing monumental growth in usage during the pandemic. If you wish to truly make the switch, consider less popular but extremely privacy-conscious video calling platforms such as Linphone, JitsiMeet and Mumble.
PRACTICE SAFER BROWSING
Chrome, Safari or Firefox store cookies to track you, so it is important to clear temporary data frequently and use Incognito mode when necessary. DuckDuckGo, a privacy-conscious browser, recently hit 100 million searches in a single day, ranking #2 in the USA, only behind Google, beating both Bing and Yahoo.
DuckDuckGo’s primary advantage is its privacy features which allow users to search without personal information being collected and sold to advertisers. StartPage.com gives Google results while protecting anonymity, and Searx.me is a fully open-source ‘privacy-respecting metasearch engine’ that is quickly becoming a favourite within the security community.
PROTECT YOUR PHONE
Every morning, most of us reach out for our smartphones before we even step out of bed. The smartphone is a device physically closest to us, which is why we need to keep it under strict control. Phones come with powerful sensors and data trackers that are constantly turned on, making it easy to extract data that can be shared with other tech companies.
Disable Analytics and go into App Settings to ensure that each app only gets permission for what they really need to perform well. Make sure you are using automatic software updates for both the operating system and applications, so that you receive the latest fixes and security updates.
With new high-end phones running on Android 8.0 and up or iOS 14 (for Apple users), you get the option of MAC address randomisation. If you have these updated operating systems, this is a huge plus because this feature protects mobile devices from being tracked as they move through Wi-Fi-rich environments.
Disable NFC, WiFi, Bluetooth, Radio when they are not in use, especially when moving around in public areas.
Disable unnecessary features of existing apps, and control yourself from installing apps you do not need. The more apps you download, the more likely a security breach. In short, less is more.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR COMPUTER
Most of the above tips are applicable for desktop or laptop usage as well. Consider opting out of computer tracking, and disabling unused radios on your computer. Installing an application like Bleachbit helps remove temporary data and clean your system, while also clearing disk space. Needless to add, public computers are a huge risk, but it is 2021 and the age of ‘cyber cafes’ has passed.
THE DARK SIDE OF SMART TECHNOLOGY
The bad news for gadget geeks is that wearable tech devices (smartwatches, fitness bands, etc.) and gadgets that use IOT (Internet of Things) are not particularly healthy for your privacy. If data is not stored locally, you risk sharing all your personal information with third parties. What is more, hackers can potentially break through your wearable device to get your smartphone and get access to all your contacts, photos, videos and financial information.
Choose your brands carefully, spend time understanding their privacy practices and minimise.
PRO TIP: USE VPN WHEN YOU CAN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) redirects your internet traffic, disguising where your computer, phone or other device is when it makes contact with websites. It also encrypts information you send across the internet, making it unreadable to anyone who intercepts your traffic. That includes your internet service provider. A few of the trusted VPN providers are: Surfshark, ProtonVPN, IVPN, Mullvad and Windscribe.
Saniaa Shah writes this fortnightly column, TechAway, for Nepali Times.