Theresa May and the Conservatives look set to heighten surveillance of the internet in response to Islamist extremism. It was a big part of their manifesto and now they have been given a mandate (no matter how minor), it’s coming to an internet near you.
I hate to sound like a bore, but I’ve watched the state of digital privacy degrade in this country for almost a decade now. I feel that I’ve got a pretty clear understanding of where we’re going. I’m not going to use this platform to lie to you and paint an optimistic picture, because sadly, I don’t think we can envision a free and unregulated internet, now or in the future. It feels too late to stop or prevent a fully regulated and monitored internet now.
I grew up on the internet, I watched it grow and evolve from an enthusiasts tool, to a necessity for life in modern civilisation. I noticed that the same children who picked on me at school for being good with computers, grew up themselves to become glued to their smartphones and Instagram feeds. As I matured in life, so too did the internet. I also read George Orwell’s ‘1984’ a great deal growing up. I’ve always been attracted to the dystopian offshoot of sci-fi, but this novel in particular has always struck a chord with me.
I have never wanted to live in a society which restricts innovation and limits access to information. I feel that we should be careful to avoid the stifling of innovation Ayn Rand speaks of in Atlas Shrugged. The internet has changed information gathering forever, but I fear that it’s being taken away and restricted, and my own country is at the forefront of this.
Therefore, I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to alternatives and actions we might consider. At the very least, to maintain a shred of privacy in our digital lives. The internet isn’t going anywhere and you will still likely need to use it in your work or personal life, so ‘not using it’ is a non-argument. Even if you believe that you “have nothing to hide” (an argument that is killing the right to secrecy for the majority), you might like to consider these points for future reference.
Take responsibility for your data
There is a common adage amongst the tech community that “If you’re not paying for it; you’re the product being sold”. This is the business model de jour for many tech companies: offer your minimum-viable product for free, increase the feature-base until your audience base is hooked, and then sell upgrades, or use your users data to target advertisements to those users who are still on board (see Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Evernote etc - the list goes on!)
Meanwhile, your data is now being spread constantly throughout any number of websites and services you have signed up for over the years.
Delete the accounts you’re no longer using and think twice about what data you are giving to the services and sites you use. Although easier said than done (I’ve noticed many services now hide or remove entirely ‘Delete Account’ options), chase up the services you no longer use to remove your data when it is no-longer required.
Use a password manager (and regularly change your passwords)
There are several aspects of password manager tools that are worth considering. For a start, it forces you to re-consider how you think about your passwords. Many people I know use the same password in a variety of deviations for all the services they use. Or, alternatively, they have one password for ‘sensitive’ uses (like their online banking or pension plan), but will use a different password for ‘less sensitive’ usage (Facebook or Twitter for example).
When you pop your email address or a common username into Have I been Pwned? - you see just how many leaked datasets there are in existence, and this isn’t going to go away. Just yesterday, up to two million customers had their data leaked from popular technology retailer CeX. These types of data leaks are happening more frequently as their value becomes more apparent to blackhat hackers and the people they sell to. If your password is leaked once from just one site, but you use it elsewhere with the same email address - you’re going to have a bad time.
It’s rarely possible to remember how many accounts we have and the passwords for all of them, particularly if they are each unique. But a password manager like 1Password or LastPass can help you generate new, unique passwords every time and stores them in an encrypted vault - so you’ll never have to worry about forgetting.
Make regular (encrypted) backups
I feel like this is oft-repeated advice, but it bares emphasising here. Data loss is almost inevitable to some degree, as over time, backups do fail and mistakes can be made. However, the recent WannaCry ransomware attack is a key example of how keeping regular backups of important data can save you from blackmailers looking to make a quick bitcoin. Use BitLocker on Windows 10, FileVault on your Mac or the built-in drive encryption tools in Linux.
Alternatively, ensure your backups are encrypted. Use software like VeraCrypt (a spin-off from TrueCrypt) or the encrypted backup options for Time Machine on Mac to be certain that only you alone have access to your data and that you maintain control.
If you can afford to, also consider making additional backups for safe keeping (stored physically) outside of your house or workplace (but off the cloud!) Perhaps with a friend or relative. Your data is much less vulnerable to ransom if you know that you have protected backups.
Use a secure search engine
Don’t make it easy for services with aggressive cookie usage to follow you across the web, strengthening your filter bubble and building ever more accurate models of you for analysis. I recommend DuckDuckGo.
Use a VPN
iPredator VPN is supposed to be very good. Also consider Tor if your country, ISP or employer has restricted access to the internet. I don’t want to make too many suggestions as this should be down to personal choice.
Use a temporary operating system
You may never need to follow this advice, and I hope that you don’t. However, it’s worth noting that if you lose all trust in your state or ISP to defend your right to privacy, the most secure option for communication over the internet is to use a disposable operating system like Tails. Keep a copy saved onto a bootable USB stick, you never know if you might need it.
I feel that this needs to be said. Write letters to your friends and family, read books and journals, keep a diary, get your photos printed. Life is short, perhaps now is a good time to get off the screen and do great work in the real world. I’ve been writing letters to my friends and family rather than sending emails or instant messages when there are things too vulnerable to send over the internet - it feels nice.
There’s a lot more that I could say. But, this blog has taken me far too long to finish writing already! I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues over the past few years, as well as slowly taking action to use the internet in a way that I can be comfortable with going forward.
I’m not going to stop using the internet because I love it. I grew up here and I live here now (sometimes more often than is healthy), but I also work here as well. I would rather live with the internet and its faults, attempting to do what I can to improve it, than walk away and never return (although some days I do think about this).
Hopefully, this post has helped. Look after yourself out there and DFTBA.
Lots of love, Kerri