Privacy vs. convenience

Spy

The blog has been quiet for several weeks because my brain has been fried. And I do mean that mostly literally. Here in the Algarve, we usually have a couple of awful weeks in August where it’s too hot to function, but this year the awfulness started in late June and has persisted throughout July, with an occasional cooler day just to remind us what it feels like to be able to breathe.

I’ve discovered that my creativity goes out the window when it’s too hot to think, as does my inclination to do anything besides drink iced tea and fantasize about snow-covered mountains.

The last couple of days have been easier, and neural activity appears to have resumed, so I thought I’d weigh in on the big to-do in the tech press regarding Windows 10 and its fairly immense intrusion on personal privacy.

If you’ve missed it, probably because you’re a normal person who doesn’t read tech blogs for fun, the gist is that the default settings on a Windows 10 installation gives Microsoft the right to scan the contents of your emails and documents and to monitor your online activity. It also allows Microsoft to use your spare bandwidth for its own purposes, such as seeding a download of the operating system to another customer, and to share all of your wifi passwords with your Outlook contacts, Skype friends, and Facebook friends.

It will also serve you personalized ads.

Now, you can opt out of these things, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world. RockPaperShotgun explains how to do it, and other outfits such as the Independent have repeated that information in a simpler format.

Most people won’t bother. The average Windows user hates getting into Settings and messing with anything, partly because it can be frightening and partly because it’s not convenient at all.

Which brings me to my post title.

Back in the old days of alt.net chat rooms and dial-up modems, it was trivially simple to be anonymous while using one’s computer online. It has gotten progressively more difficult as our world becomes more interconnected and permanently online, as our governments levy vast complexes of technology and huge work forces to spy on us, and as we have become accustomed to large companies giving us information and services for free. To be truly private these days takes one hell of a lot of work and some specialized tools.

That said, there are a few easy things even the least tech-savvy among us can do to increase our privacy and decrease governmental/corporate spying on our online activities:

*****

1. Use DuckDuckGo for your web searches rather than Google. DuckDuckGo’s entire raison d’être is to provide searches that are not tracked and not recorded. If you search for “lawnmower” on DuckDuckGo, you will not mysteriously be served with lawnmower ads for the next six months wherever you go on the Internet. I have it set as my default search engine both on my laptop and my phone.

2. Use Ghostery to block trackers while you are online. It’s a free extension available for all the main browsers and very easy to install.

3. Pay for an email account. Yes, Gmail and Yahoo Mail are free and everyone loves that, but when big companies offer you something for free, what it really means is that you are not a customer. You are the product being sold. Suck it up and pay a company to provide your email, and that company will not read all of your mail contents to see how they can better target you with ads.

4. Stay away from Facebook Chat or Messenger. Use a chat service that doesn’t scan your every word for ad targeting, and one that is encrypted. Apple’s Messages is encrypted end-to-end, including while on its own servers. Skype is also encrypted, but not while on the Microsoft servers, something Microsoft does not tell you. (In fact, Skype was specifically mentioned as being “a vital niche in NSA reporting” by analysts for the NSA’s PRISM program.)

There are other, lesser-known and very secure chat apps out there, but the barrier to using them is that all of your family and friends aren’t on them.

And that is always the tradeoff. Do we want privacy, or do we want convenience? Do we want to Facebook Chat with our friends because it’s so easy, or take the time to say, “Hey, let’s move to X App to chat” and then go to a different service? Get free email or pay for it? Use Google’s instant results or wait perhaps half a second for the much-smaller servers of DuckDuckGo to deliver our results? Leave Windows 10 on its default settings — enabling total access to everything we do — or take the trouble to go through 13 different screens in Settings, as well as an outside website, and reset all of them?

All of us have different levels of comfort in that tradeoff. But increasing our privacy (and reducing our hackability at the same time) doesn’t take a tech genius. It just takes a little time.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to Privacy vs. convenience

  1. Karien says:

    Funny, I was just wondering this afternoon what you’re up to that you’re so quiet. That’s besides cussing you for making me wish summer over. Because I can’t wait for October. Or November.

    Not that we’re having a great summer here in Ireland. How ’bout we trade? You think I’m nuts and I don’t know what I’m saying, don’t you? No, really, I’d like a trade. I’m still in long sleeves and socks, it is so cold. We moved, now I just have a shower, no bath, and I’ll give my front teeth for a hot bath.

    This is an awesome post, btw. Just yesterday I was saying to my sister that the solution to the Internet of Things security issues is NOT to not connect at all; it is to educate ourselves better about security. The first three items I will definitely implement, and the fourth is a non-issue; I don’t use it.

    Thanks for informing us.

    • Will it help if I tell you that the first book of Without A Front is already in final layout, and the second is currently on the editor’s desk? We’re actually ahead of schedule. (Not that it will change the publication date…)

      My sympathies regarding your freezing summer in Ireland. I can relate, having lived for 13 years on the Oregon coast, where summer is more of an abstract idea. I used to drive into the Willamette Valley just for the joy of wearing shorts and a tank top. Hey, airfare to the Algarve is cheap from the UK!

      I’m glad my post was so timely for you, and that you’ll benefit. It really doesn’t take much to improve our privacy, but inertia is hard to overcome.

      • Karien says:

        Yes! Yes, it will indeed help! [Insert happy dance]

        Airfare might be cheap, but I’m South African, which means I need a Schengen visa. Which in turn means that nothing happens spontaneously. 😦 I can’t wait to sort out citizenship.

        It’s been interesting watching Ghostery’s activity. I also just noticed it blocked four elements on WordPress. I (don’t) trust it’s innocent? [Insert exaggerated frown]

        • I hear you on the visa issue. I haven’t needed one to travel, but I’ve needed several to live here, and they’re a pain. Good luck on the citizenship!

          Re: the blocked elements on WordPress, what I see are Twitter elements (no big deal), a Word Press statistic counter (also no big deal; so far as I know WordPress only tracks where visitors come from, so bloggers can know what our readership looks like), and DoubleClick. That last one is an ad tracker, so I’m happy to block it!

          I’ve visited sites where Ghostery blocks so many trackers and cookies that its notification box takes up a third of the screen height. It’s very enlightening to see how ubiquitous this stuff is. Also, you can customize Ghostery to whitelist sites you trust or to let certain trackers through if you want (some actually are benign and useful to bloggers, for instance).

          • Karien says:

            Yeah, I see the first two I see also, and agreed, as far as I know they’re not a big deal. But I don’t see DoubleClick (I do on a lot of other pages, though). I also see Gravatar and SkimLinks. Obviously I’m not going to check every tracker; Ghostery blocked 22 trackers on some of the sites I visited this morning. But yeah, I will on the sites that matters to me. And I guess as time goes on, I’ll have a better idea which of these trackers are bad, and which are not.

          • Karien says:

            Okay, so if I understand correctly, Skimlinks is not a bad thing – they just negotiate better rates on click-revenue?

            Ugh, Gravatar; not so much.

  2. joanarling says:

    Hallelujah! I was beginning to think I was the only one…

    All of my family and friends use Microsoft, Facebook, Whatsapp and what have you. I think they consider me slightly insane when I refuse to go even near that stuff. Of course, most of their communication passes me by. That’s sad. But I’ll never let convenience cause me to override what I have learned in administrating networks.

    Most of us are angry at being spied upon by the NSA and related organisations. Yet also most of us hand their data over willingly to private organisations who lure us with a nice user interface. /me shakes head.

    • Nope, you’re not the only one. But you’ve reminded that I probably should have added a fifth tip: “And for heaven’s sake, don’t give Facebook your real birthdate!” That’s a critical piece of data necessary for identity theft, and it is stunning how many people offer it up on Facebook. Publicly.

      Whenever I’m required to tell some site my birthdate, I always use the same one: January 1. Easy to remember, far from the truth.

  3. Charlie Clean says:

    Great to have you back! I think it’s advisable to also stay away from WhatsApp (which belongs to Facebook, after all). I have deleted WhatsApp some time ago and am now using Threema. And quite a few of my friends have done the same. Security first.

    • Thank you! And good point on WhatsApp, which was probably a lot more secure before Facebook bought it. It’s great for the creators of an app when it becomes so popular that one of the tech giants buys it, but in terms of privacy it’s usually bad news for the users. Skype was fairly secure before Microsoft bought it, because it was so decentralized. Now everything goes through Microsoft’s servers, and the NSA has internally bragged about what a great resource it is.

      I seem to recall reading that Threema is hugely popular in Germany.

      • Charlie Clean says:

        Yup, Threema seems to be quite popular in Germany (I understand it’s based in Switzerland, though). A German friend of mine introduced me to it.

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