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.