The Practice of Privacy

You’re being followed.

No, don’t look behind you. Not because it’ll give you away – they’re not back there – but because it won’t do any good. They don’t have to follow you physically. Not any more.

Here’s one example: open this page and it will likely do a pretty good job of showing you your location. It will also detect a whole lot of other information about you, down to the kind of screen you’re using to look at the web page. If your answer is “Well, I just won’t go to that site!” then you’re missing the point – every site you visit gets that information. This particular page just happens to tell you about it.

And that’s just the beginning. Did you realize you have a browser fingerprint?

“Browser fingerprinting” is a method of tracking web browsers by the configuration and settings information they make visible to websites, rather than traditional tracking methods such as IP addresses and unique cookies…While the tracker won’t know your name, they could collect a deeply personal dossier of websites you visit.” – Panopticlick

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Your Amazon shopping profile, your Facebook likes, your check-ins on Yelp and even your chat history is all being stored. It’s all being recorded. And that’s just through your browser. If you really want to get paranoid, read through this article about how many different kinds of people – from schools to government agencies to “low-tier hacker peeping toms” are finding ways to get access to your cameras. Not just the cameras on your computer or your phone – we’re talking baby monitors coming to life and swearing at your children.

But I’m Just a…

insert whatever demographic you are here. Yes, you are. Exactly. Why would any one want to spy on you? How could they possibly use that against you?

Well, we could go all “First they came for…” on you. But that requires a healthy level of mistrust of the government, and who wants to bother with that? Instead, let’s go with good old fashioned greed: both Natasha and I have had our debit cards hacked and used in the past year. Now, we are not poor by world standards, but based on the U.S. standard of living we are right around the poverty line – yet somebody behind some computer felt it would be worth it to try spending our money.

Identity theft. Stalking. Access to your employer’s networks. Those are just the kinds of things that Facebook hackers want. Multiply that by every social network you visit, and you have an idea of just how vulnerable you become when you use them indiscriminately.

You don’t have to unplug everything and move into the woods. Well, I hope not, anyway. But there are definitely some solid (and mostly easy) ways to counter most of these vulnerabilities:

  • Use a VPN. Right now, anyone looking at my browser information believes I am in Miami. I’ve been using IPVanish on my mobile and laptop, and it’s pretty painless (as long as I remember to turn it on. There are many other ways to do a VPN (I’m going to be trying to create my own later today)
  • Encrypt Everything. On an iPhone, it’s as simple as activating the passcode. On my mac, it’s called FileVault. I’ve already recommended Signal, but if you really want to feel like a spy, try Confide.
  • Protect Your Browser Unfortunately, this is kind of like saying “fix your car” – it could mean a lot of different things, depending on what you do. Most secure would be to switch to the TOR browser – but if that’s too much, you can at least do things like install the Privacy Badger extension to reduce some of the tracking that’s being done on sites.
  • Minimize Your MeatSpace Vulnerabilities. See how easy it is to start talking like William Gibson when you think about this stuff? This is doing things like using Two-Factor Authentication wherever possible, or a password locker app like LastPass. Check this list, and see if there’s anything that stands out as something you might be overlooking when it comes to defending yourself from identity theft.

But That Sounds Really Inconvenient

Yep. It is. Even for an enthusiastic lifehacker like me, there are parts of this that really have put stumbling blocks in my routine. I forget to turn on my VPN. I still haven’t really figured out how LastPass works on all my devices. And you can ask Natasha how many times I’ve sworn at my laptop because SAASPASS was taking too long to let me in.

Convenience is how they get you. Watch any spy movie: it’s the point where the person in danger waves their hand at their security and says “That’s too much trouble!” It’s also inconvenient to lock your car, to schedule an doctor appointment, or to put shoes on. But you do those things because they protect you, and some of them you do automatically now because they are a habit.

Habits? We know how to create habits!

That’s my challenge to you (and to myself) for the week. Pick out some privacy habit – something that makes you just a little harder to follow – and make it a daily thing. Maybe it’s the VPN, maybe you just see what it’s like surfing with Privacy Badger, maybe you just get nifty little stickers for your webcam – but try a little privacy practice.

Let me know what you try, and how it goes!

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