25 June 2013

What To Do About Your Digital Footprint and Online Security

There are two schools of thought on this.

One side says that if you have nothing to hide why worry about such things, let them sift through your data. The other side says that even if I have nothing to hide, if they have the ability to record all my exchanges, the day I disagree with them publicly, they can destroy me by divulging embarrassing details about me.

I am not going to tell you which side makes more sense, that is up to you. But I will suggest a couple of things in case you want to take some measures.

First the facts:

1) Assume that all your phone conversations and email exchanges are recorded and stored. The storage technology and database software are so advanced that this is really easy and fairly inexpensive to do. Most of the time, no one will every listen to what you said or read what you wrote. This is why they issue blanket denials with a straight face. But if they need to, they can.

2) All your Internet activities are stored in several company servers, especially Google. Your queries are analyzed and your digital footprint is saved to sell stuff to you later on. If you book a trip to Orlando, the next day, your favorite blog will have ads for Disney World just for you.

3) Your email is like sending a postcard. It is visible to everyone. Think twice before you send your neighbor your home alarm system code for them to water your plants.

4) When you download something through torrents, don't assume that you are invisible: your ISP can see everything you download. In many places you will get a warning letter and if you persist some Movie or Music Association will sue you for everything you have got.

My suggestions:

1) For Privacy

If you wish to avoid your activities and exchanges being recorded and stored, start by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN is a protocol that takes your Internet traffic away from your ISP's servers and re-routes it through encrypted servers. In other words, it makes your Internet explorations invisible to snoopers and hackers.

Note that this does not mean anonymous: Google will still know that you booked an Orlando ticket but your activities will be invisible to other prying eyes.

How to choose a VPN system? Most are commercial companies, which means you have to pay for the service (there are free systems but they are much slower). A couple of pointers:

- Choose the one that has many servers around the world so that you can have different IP addresses. This will also enable you to watch country specific programs by providing you an IP address in that country.

- Test their performance before you sign up. There should be very little speed penalty for going through their servers (roughly 10 percent speed degradation is acceptable).

- If you want decent protection L2TP/IPsec is a better protocol than the more common PPTP.

- Finally, if you are very serious about government interference. select a service that does not maintain logs.

Click here for a review of top VPN service providers.

Besides VPN, you can also use the "private browsing" option in Firefox.

2) For Anonymity

VPN makes your Web surfing private but not anonymous.

If you want to render your activities both private and anonymous you need to go through something like Tor. Tor was designed for the US Navy but it is now open to the public and is free.

What it does is this:

Internet traffic is composed of small packets of data with an address header to indicate where they are supposed to go.

Tor removes the final address from the header and moves these packets through secure servers one at a time.

At every step the next server is randomly chosen and only its address is given.

This way, and each time the header is changed and a new address is given, which thwarts attempts to follow your traffic.

Keep in mind that Tor involves a serious speed degradation.

3. Nothing Is Really Erased

Nothing you do or write on the Internet ever disappears. Most Web sites are stored at the Wayback machine.

Even dead sites are backed up somewhere. For instance, within two days of Snowden's appearance people found out that when he was 18 he wrote silly stuff in a now defunct Web site.

All your tweets are stored and Twitter has a deal with Library of Congress to make them available online. Right now it is a slow system but eventually it will become a searchable database.

And despite what Facebook says, nothing is completely erased on their site. Consider a fake identity.

In any case, exercise caution when you make statements. Any of it can pop up somewhere when you least expect it.

4. Secure Email

If you want your email to be a bit more secure than Gmail (your email messages are routinely scanned by intelligent bots to find key words to sell you stuff) use Hushmail.

Another way of making your email more secure is to use encryption. While the system is fairly easy it involves sending your interlocutors a private key and a public key so it could get cumbersome for most people.

Here is a primer.

5. Disposable Addresses

When you sign up for a service, do not use your regular email address. They are sold to spammers and they are also used to track your movements on the Web.

You can either use a service like Yahoo to create a new address with a fake name and fake original email account (which is getting harder to do). Or you can use a service like 10 Minute Mail. This service gives an address for ten minutes or just long enough to sign up to a site and receive a confirmation link via email. Once you confirmed your existence to the site you want to register to, your email disappears forever. Good luck tracking you through that disposable address.

6. Never Use the Same Password Everywhere 

If you use the same password for your alumni Web site and your bank, the day that alumni site is hacked, those people will be able to get into your bank account as well.

A simple method of selecting and retaining your passwords would be this:

- Choose a specific book, determine a page and use s specific line in that page as your password for a site; use the the same line of the next page for another site and so on.

- Simply list those sites on a piece of paper in their proper order and put it in the book. If you selected page 20 and line three for the first one you will know what to do. The next one will be page 21 and line 3. And 22 and line 3.

- Even if someone were to find the list they would not know what to do with it without the page and line information.

7. Avoid Torrents If You Can

If you want to find specific files try Usenet. It is accessible through your email client (like Outlook or Thunderbird) but you will not find much unless you sign up for a paying service like GigaNews. They have a search engine (Mimo) and you can get a VPN (VyprVPN) for the price of a monthly subscription.

If you don't know what Usenet is, forget I mentioned it. You are better off by not knowing it.

And if after all that, you are still intercepted by the Big Brother, whatever you do, don't mention me.

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