Even many of the tools explicitly designed to protect your privacy don’t work quite as well as advertised. Our personal information is eroded through a combination of user information-driven commerce (nearly every company sells your personal data), weak governmental protections, leaky products, hacked records and a society that, in general, feels meh toward privacy in the first place. If you're concerned with the privacy of your business, contact our security experts. The end result is that it isn’t all that difficult for anyone to buy or see your personal information. You don’t have to be a government official with a legal warrant to peer into someone’s life. But just because your privacy isn’t protected by default doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to improve it. Here's how to take back a bit of your private life:
1. Find a safe country that values privacy
It’s good to be in a country that attempts to protect citizens from rampant government spying, at least without legal warrants and judicial oversight. It’s even better to be in a country that at least talks tough about protecting users' individual privacy and places limits on its commercial use.
The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is pushing the privacy bar a bit. It impacts any company in the EU or doing business with any citizen in the EU. That’s a lot of coverage. Expect more businesses and countries not in the EU to be moving toward more GDPR-like laws, although you will always have your laggards.
Of course, most of us don’t have the option of simply moving to another, more privacy-embracing country. If that's your situation and if you care about your privacy, be an agent of change. I recommend contributing to any organization that fights for your privacy. Certainly, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are top organizations with lots of information and a track record of continued hard work and success.
2. Get an anonymizing operating system
Next, you'll need an anonymizing operating system that runs on a resettable virtual machine (VM) running on secure portable media. The portable media device should use hardware-based encryption or a secure software-based encryption program. One of the top products on that list is Ironkey Workspace. It offers good encryption, locks out users who enter too many bad passwords and comes with Microsoft's portable OS, Windows to Go, on several USB key models.
Many privacy advocates prefer a Linux Live distro, such as Tails or ZeusGuard. Live OSes are designed to be booted from removable media for each session, and Tails is one of the best, built for and focused on privacy and security. The U.S. National Security Agency has stated in an internal, leaked presentation that Tails and Live OSes like it are a threat to its eavesdropping mission.
3. Use an anonymous VPN
Next, you'll need to connect to the internet using an anonymous method. The best approach would probably be to jump around different open wireless networks, public or otherwise, as much as possible, rarely repeating at the same connection point. Barring that method, you would probably want to use a virtual private network (VPN) or device built for such purposes. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of VPNs that are specifically built to make your internet connection more difficult to identify and track. They do this by replacing your computer’s originating IP address and metadata information with something else. Instead they substitute one of their IP addresses for yours and block your metadata information from traveling to the eventual endpoint. On top of that, many privacy-protecting VPNs also promise not to log your connection, so even if they get a legal search warrant from law enforcement, they will have less data that can assist in identifying you.
You can also consider using a device explicitly designed to protect your privacy, like Anonabox and ProxyGambit. Devices like Anonabox can utilize Tor (covered below) or anonymizing VPN services, which are always on to protect your connection. Devices like ProxyGambit go even a little further. I'll let ProxyGambit describe itself:
ProxyGambit is a simple anonymization device that allows you to access the internet from anywhere in the world without revealing your true location or IP, fracturing your traffic from the internet/IP through either a long distance radio link or a reverse tunneled GSM bridge that ultimately drops back onto the internet and exits through a wireless network you're nowhere near. While a point to point link is possible, the reverse GSM bridge allows you to proxy from thousands of miles away with nothing other than a computer and internet with no direct link back to your originating machine.
If you are truly concerned about your privacy, then consider using a VPN or anonymizing device to protect your internet surfing.
4. Use Tor
Whatever Live OS and internet connection method you use, make sure to go with an anonymizing browser, such as a Tor-enabled browser. Tor is actually an entire system — tools, browsers, APIs and network — dedicated to helping you and your connection remain anonymous.
Once you enter a Tor network path, the traffic to and from your destination will be routed through a random set of "Tor nodes." Although Tor's anonymity can be defeated, it remains one of the best ways to stay anonymous when combined with these other recommendations. You can even buy hardware-based Tor solutions like Anonabox.
5. Don't use plug-ins
It's very important to remember that many of today's browser plug-ins, particularly the most popular ones, leave clues that reveal your identity and location. Don't use them if you want to preserve your anonymity.
6. Stick with HTTPS
When you connect somewhere on the internet, try to use HTTPS. This used to be harder to do, but now the most popular websites use HTTPS by default, and those that don’t can be defeated by using one of the anonymizing VPN services or devices used above. When working with HTTPS, use only handpicked, trusted certificate authorities that don't issue "fake" identity certificates.
7. Avoid the usual applications
Don't install or use normal productivity software, like word processors or spreadsheets. If it’s super popular, they probably don’t care about your privacy. Many "dial home" each time they're started and reveal information. If it’s free and isn’t explicitly designed to protect your privacy, don’t expect any. As computer security guru Bruce Schneier says in his seminal book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, “If something is free, you’re not the customer; you’re the product.”
8. Set up anonymous burner accounts
You'll need a different password and password question answers for each website where you create a logon account. (Note: these steps are not only for privacy nuts and should already be practiced by everyone.) The very paranoid will also want to create different email addresses for each website. These "burner" email accounts are expendable and are much harder to trace back to the real you. Use email services that explicitly advertise as being anonymous. You’ll find free and commercial versions. Always connect to them using other anonymity apps and connections, and switch among burner accounts, even when speaking to the same people.
9. Never use credit cards
If you plan to buy anything on the internet, you can't use a normal credit card and stay anonymous. You can try to use online money transfer services such as PayPal, but most have records that can be stolen or subpoenaed. Better, use an e-currency such as bitcoin or one of its competitors. E-currencies are starting to gain widespread validity and are accepted in more and more places every day. You'll need a bank or service to convert your real money into one of these alternative forms (and to get it back out), but once you're using the currency, buying anonymity is easier to maintain.
The hard work of privacy
Each of these anonymizing methods can be defeated, but the more of them you add to your privacy solution, the harder it will be for another person or group to identify you. Of course, everything you do to protect your privacy causes inconvenience in your online life. Serious privacy advocates don't mind going to this trouble, but most of us aren't willing to do what it takes to accomplish even a modicum of privacy, such as configuring settings in our OS or on social media sites. Most people simply accept the defaults — which rarely protect privacy.
The people who hack and monitor us for a living hope the majority of us will take the easy way out and do little or nothing to prevent our online identities from being discovered, hacked, and revealed. You can be part of the solution.