Now more than than ever, we need to be smart about how we communicate online. The NSA’s PRISM program is continuously collecting all of our personal data from the world’s top online services including Facebook, Skype, Google, and Apple. If we take no precautionary measures, we should assume that all of our communications are being stored and analyzed in real-time. This is a total violation of our privacy and it’s time we take back our online power and freedom by using some simple tools and expanding our technical awareness.
The ultimate goal of the NSA is nothing less than “total population control.” They want to know exactly how you live, what you think, what you’re interested in, what motivates you, who you associate with, what you really know, and what you are against. This occurs regardless if you have done anything wrong or not. Their motto and practice is simple: collect everything. This dragnet surveillance attempts to intercept all digital communications including emails, chat messages, phone conversations, video calls, text messages, browsing history, and more.
As a result, we really need to be vigilant about our browsing habits and our approach to using the internet. It would be wise to reduce and eventually eliminate our usage of all compromised services, especially when sharing sensitive personal information. In the meantime, here are some helpful and easy-to-use tools that can greatly enhance your online privacy and digital integrity.
Use StartPage or DuckDuckGo for all your searches. They are both the world’s most private search engines, allowing you to search anonymously and securely. They do not collect or share any personal information about you, including your IP address. I recommend adding one or both of these search engines to your browser. StartPage even offers you one-click access to search results through a web proxy, giving you further anonymity.
The easiest way to prevent anyone from learning your location and spying on your internet activity is by using the Tor Browser Bundle. The Tor network is run by privacy-conscious volunteers all around the world and is an extremely effective tool against network surveillance. Even the NSA doesn’t like it. Using Tor allows you to access sites that have been blocked by certain ISPs and countries and also to hidden parts of the internet. It is important not to use Tor for sites that personally identify you like Facebook or Gmail, as this defeats the purpose of anonymity. The Tor Browser will block browser plugins like Flash, Quicktime, etc as these can be tricked into revealing your IP address. So be aware that you may have to change your browsing habits to maximize the use of this powerful software.
Use a VPN
Another easy way to browse anonymously is by using a VPN (virtual private network). This essentially encrypts your connection and gives you an anonymous IP each time you browse. This is especially necessary if you use public WiFi networks to prevent your online activity from being easily intercepted and deciphered. There are many VPN providers available but they are not all created equal. What’s important is that the company does NOT keep traffic logs, as these can be turned over to the NSA and other courts upon request. Therefore, I recommend using PrivateInternetAccess, where you can sign up completely anonymously using Bitcoins and other payment methods. Alternatively, here is a solid list of other seriously private VPN providers.
One of the best apps for private, encrypted chats is Cryptocat. It can easily be added to your web browser and even your iPhone. The app offers individual or group chat, file sharing and even Facebook chat — all encrypted. Keep in mind that both users need to be using Cryptocat for encrypted chat to work properly over Facebook Messenger. Also note that using Cryptocat does not anonymize your connection, so you’ll have to mask your IP address using Tor or a VPN to be truly anonymous. Check this list for more secure instant messaging options. If you’re looking for Skype alternatives, I recommend checking out Jitsi or Linphone. See more voice & video chat options here.
Store & Share Files Anonymously
One of the most popular file storage services in the world is Dropbox and, unfortunately, they are a “targeted wannabe PRISM provider”, according to Edward Snowden. This means their services have been potentially compromised and cannot be trusted. Fortunately, there is a better alternative. SpiderOak is a tool that enables you to have completely private file storage, backup, and syncing across all your devices. They have a “Zero Knowledge” policy — which means even their servers do not have access to the plaintext contents of the data being stored. They do not store your password and everything is encrypted; only you can access your data. SpiderOak has been recommended by Snowden himself as a secure alternative. All new users are offered 2GB for free, a generous starting point.
Everyone uses email and these can be the most revealing and compromising communications. Using providers like Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail and Yahoo virtually guarantees that your emails are being recorded and stored against your will. Therefore, it is important to consider switching to a privacy-conscious email provider. Additionally, it is recommended to learn how to use encrypted email by using PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). Essentially, PGP uses public-private key cryptography, which allows you to send emails and files that only a trusted third party can open and view. You will need to generate a public and private key pair and have some technical knowledge to use it effectively. Here is an easy startup guide and there are some good tutorials on YouTube that can show you how to get started. There is a nice Chrome extension called Mailvelope that can integrate PGP with Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo if you must continue using these. I also highly recommend using Enigmail if you use Thunderbird as an easy integrated PGP solution.
Useful Browser Plugins
All of these are available for Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers.
Adblock Plus – unblock annoying ads, including on Facebook and YouTube. The internet’s most popular browser extension.
Disconnect – a simple extension that blocks companies and websites from tracking you (Alternatives: Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe)
HTTPS Everywhere – tries to force all sites to use an encrypted HTTPS connection
NoScript – Blocks active content and scripts so that you decide what to trust.
Self-Destructing Cookies – Immediately deletes tracking cookies as soon as you close a tab or your browser. Extremely useful and customizable, a must-have for Firefox users.
Keep in mind that these are all just tools that can assist us in maintaining our privacy and integrity online. They are not foolproof magic bullets and we must use them responsibly and effectively in order for them to work. Please continue to educate yourself on why privacy matters and spread the word to family and friends who can also benefit from this. If you have any more useful privacy tips, please share them in the comments below. We need to keep the internet open, free, and secure for all!
For a comprehensive list of verified privacy tools for all platforms, please visit PRISM-BREAK.org
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