Cloak & Tag­gers

Is there any way to pro­tect your­self and your pri­vacy on­line?

Fashion (Canada) - - The Draw | The New Armour - By Guy Saddy

You know, I could con­tinue to waste my time re­spond­ing to your dip­shit non­sense, but I ac­tu­ally work for a liv­ing.… This will be the last time you take a dump on any one of my feeds. You’re not wanted here. (Now there’s a line I’m sure you’ve heard be­fore.)” —Jan­uary 26, 2017, 4:40 p.m.

That’s me talk­ing. Or fum­ing. This took place al­most two years ago, in the af­ter­math of Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, when tem­pers flared and nerves were frayed. It was hardly my finest hour, and, frankly, I’d for­got­ten about it. But the In­ter­net doesn’t for­get.

The above ex­cerpt is one of thou­sands of com­ments that make up my dig­i­tal foot­print on Face­book—a record of my “es­tab­lished adult life,” as the so­cial me­dia plat­form de­scribes it. Even though I’m hardly a power user, the in­for­ma­tion held in trust by the so­cial me­dia giant is fright­en­ingly com­plete: ev­ery post I’ve made, ev­ery com­ment I’ve dashed off, ev­ery thumbs-up I’ve given, ev­ery ad­ver­tiser I’ve clicked on (and a bunch that I never even knew ex­isted). At some point, I have al­lowed ac­cess to my per­sonal ad­dress book, un­wit­tingly giv­ing up in­for­ma­tion on ev­ery­one from Lu­l­ule­mon founder Chip Wil­son to 1980s heart­throb/crooner Gino Van­nelli.

It’s not just Face­book, of course. From the search en­gines you use to the apps on your phone to your In­ter­net ser­vice provider (ISP), your life on­line is sub­ject to in­nu­mer­able pri­vacy breaches. “Large so­cial me­dia and search com­pa­nies ac­cu­mu­late mas­sive amounts of per­sonal data about each of us,” says Michael Geist, a Univer­sity of Ot­tawa law pro­fes­sor and Canada re­search chair of In­ter­net and e-com­merce law. Al­most every­thing we do, notes Geist, from up­load­ing photos to us­ing map­ping and search tools, leaves dig­i­tal residue. “The in­for­ma­tion is all vol­un­tar­ily pro­vided. Yet the amount of data that is gen­er­ated is very sig­nif­i­cant.”

So how do you avoid pry­ing eyes and re­claim your pri­vacy? There is an ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion, of course: Stay off the In­ter­net. But most of us

don’t want to dis­en­gage; we want to par­tic­i­pate— but with­out hav­ing to look over our shoul­ders (fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing) ev­ery time we de­cide to take a spin around the web. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to cloak your­self en­tirely while on­line. There are, how­ever, ways to make your­self less vis­i­ble.

First, al­ways sign out of your so­cial me­dia ac­counts af­ter each ses­sion; this way, it will be more dif­fi­cult (but not im­pos­si­ble) to track your per­son­ally iden­ti­fi­able in­for­ma­tion while you roam. But even if you’re logged out, the com­pany can still as­so­ci­ate the data with your IP ad­dress and all the web­sites you’ve been to that con­tain Face­book code. Sec­ond, if you’re go­ing to al­low cook­ies to be set (some sites re­quire this), make sure your browser set­tings only al­low sites you’ve ac­tu­ally vis­ited to place them. Us­ing your browser’s stealth mode—Google Chrome’s Incog­nito Win­dow, say, or Sa­fari’s Pri­vate Win­dow—also en­sures that your his­tory won’t be saved and that track­ing cook­ies won’t fol­low you af­ter your ses­sion ends. That said, odds are that your search en­gine (Google, in most cases) is still log­ging every­thing you do.

Google’s busi­ness model is pred­i­cated on col­lect­ing data and then pro­vid­ing ac­cess to it: ev­ery term you search, ev­ery video you watch, every­thing you buy. Even your Gmail ac­count isn’t as pri­vate as you thought: “Our au­to­mated sys­tems an­a­lyze your con­tent (in­clud­ing emails) to pro­vide you with per­son­ally rel­e­vant prod­uct fea­tures, such as cus­tom­ized search re­sults, tai­lored ad­ver­tis­ing and spam and mal­ware de­tec­tion,” states Google’s pol­icy. “This anal­y­sis oc­curs as the con­tent is sent, re­ceived, and when it is stored.”

A re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion by As­so­ci­ated Press found that Google ser­vices on An­droid de­vices and iPhones will store your lo­ca­tion data even if your pri­vacy set­tings say this isn’t hap­pen­ing. To pre­vent this, you have to “pause” the Lo­ca­tion His­tory set­ting and another set­ting called “Web and App Ac­tiv­ity.” When both of these set­tings are paused, it pre­vents any of your ac­tiv­ity from be­ing saved to your ac­count. If you only pause Lo­ca­tion His­tory and not the other, Google will still con­tinue to track your move­ments.

So what else can you do? You can try an al­ter­na­tive search en­gine like StartPage or Duck­DuckGo; nei­ther one claims to keep track of your trav­els or searches, and both can be ac­cessed through their re­spec­tive web­sites or eas­ily added to your browsers, desk­top or mo­bile de­vices, as ex­ten­sions. (Duck­DuckGo also gives a pri­vacy grade to the sites you visit that’s based on how many track­ers are lurk­ing, whether the con­nec­tion is se­cure and the ex­tent of the site’s pri­vacy pol­icy.) They’re not per­fect—in terms of quan­tity, you’ll likely find more com­pre­hen­sive re­sults us­ing Google—but for most gen­eral surf­ing ap­pli­ca­tions, they’ll do what you need them to do. Another op­tion (mainly for desk­top users) is the Fire­fox-based Tor browser, which chan­nels your searches through a world­wide net­work of servers, ef­fec­tively bounc­ing your brows­ing trail around the In­ter­net and mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult to track your where­abouts. The down­side? Much slower surf­ing.

The best easy-to-im­ple­ment op­tion for en­sur­ing pri­vacy is to use a vir­tual pri­vate net­work. VPNs con­ceal your lo­ca­tion (and your brows­ing), even from your own ISP or cel­lu­lar net­work (Bell, Rogers or Telus, to name the big­ger play­ers). Be­cause your traf­fic is chan­nelled through the VPN’s own servers, nei­ther your ISP nor the sites you visit will know where you’re ac­tu­ally lo­cated, al­low­ing you to surf (rel­a­tively) pri­vately. (For those who use pub­lic Wi-Fi to, say, do their on­line bank­ing in a café, us­ing a VPN should be stan­dard.)

When it comes to choos­ing a VPN, there are sev­eral op­tions—some that charge a monthly fee and oth­ers that don’t. As with most things in life, you of­ten get what you pay for: In the past, some free VPNs have sold cus­tomer data, negat­ing at least some of the ad­van­tages they’re meant to pro­vide. (Note that some web­sites that use geoblock­ing to re­strict a ser­vice, like Net­flix, to spe­cific lo­ca­tions don’t play nice with some VPNs.)

How did we get here? Un­der­ly­ing the is­sue of on­line pri­vacy is a stark eco­nomic fact. The In­ter­net is “free” in the same way that broad­cast tele­vi­sion has al­ways been free: To ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment, you tac­itly agree to be tar­geted by ads. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two me­dia, how­ever, is in de­gree. Where TV ads are ba­si­cally like high­way bill­boards, of­ten in­dis­crim­i­nately vy­ing for the at­ten­tion of ev­ery driver on the road, In­ter­net ad­ver­tis­ing is more like hav­ing some­one root­ing through your trash and dis­cov­er­ing your credit card bills and then un­can­nily show­ing up at your front door with an of­fer to sell you some­thing you want or need. For ad­ver­tis­ers, the data col­lected by many web­sites (and, in some cases, ISPs) is gold. For con­sumers, it’s a Faus­tian bar­gain. The adage “If the prod­uct is free, then you are the prod­uct” ap­plies.

But does any of this mat­ter? Is the com­modi­ti­za­tion of your data evil or merely ex­ploita­tive? If you be­lieve it’s the lat­ter, then check out con­sumer-to­busi­ness com­pa­nies like Dat­a­coup and Datawal­let that of­fer to pay you for what you’ve been giv­ing away and al­low you con­trol over where your in­for­ma­tion goes.

It’s a start. If you’re the prod­uct, you might as well be the ven­dor, too.

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