Information gathering is a common practice
It might not come as a surprise that advertisers, tech companies, websites, or social networks are gathering information about you to deliver targeted advertisements, even though users were inadequately informed about such practice for years. While you most likely have nothing to hide, there is a lot of sensitive data out there about you, and you should be able to protect it.
Even now, when major Information Technology companies such as Google or Facebook are attempting to brief users about what data is being gathered about them and that they can opt-out of some of such practices, most of the details are buried somewhere in Privacy Policies.
Most of the browsers and social media platforms default the privacy settings in a way that allows information collection – the opt-out scheme rather than the opt-in policy is likely never to go away. Of course, there are a few honorable mentions that take user privacy seriously, although this is unfortunately quite rare.
Companies and organizations typically gather information in order to profit from personalized advertisements – we are constantly being reminded that this practice is for “our own benefit,” although this statement should be left the individuals to decide for themselves.
Even if settings of the web browser are tweaked in a way to prevent websites and other third-parties from gathering such data as cookies, you are still under the surveillance of your Internet Service Provider (ISP) (which sells your data without permission), as well as the local or even foreign government.
Is government spying on you? Yes, yes, it does
Privacy has been a hot topic for almost a decade now, as the shenanigans of The National Security Agency (NSA) were exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, and websites like Wikileaks disclosed millions of highly sensitive governmental documents online.
While the NSA is keen on to spy on international targets such as Angela Merkel for political reasons, the agency uses various tracking methods in order to gather information about the US citizens and regular people across the globe. This institution does not work alone, however, and employs the help of the four other agencies to conduct massive surveillance operations. Along with the NSA, these institutions form the Five Eyes alliance:
- Communications Security Establishment (Canada)
- Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand)
- Government Communications Headquarters (UK)
- Signals Directorate (Australia)
While the NSA, along with other governmental agencies and institutions, hide behind the mantle of national security, information practices are being greatly abused by these systems for mass espionage campaigns and international political reasons.
Certain spying processes are mandatory to protect regular citizens from harm, although these operations should be very well-founded and targeted towards serial killers, terrorists, hackers, and other malicious parties. While regular citizens might not have much to hide, their domestic communication, locations, international movements, and other data is being recorded on a regular basis. According to the Electric Frontier Foundation, NSA's citizen surveillance practices were traced to as early as 2001.
Tech companies are in it – willingly or not
As previously mentioned, tech giants such as Google gather an enormous amount of data about each of the individuals who connect to their Google accounts, type in a search query, click on a link, etc., in order to gain monetary benefits from the practice. Clicks on sponsored content benefit various parties, and the whole industry is worth more than $100 billion.
Naturally, such an extensive database of information can be of use to the government, and it is extremely interested in getting this data from the tech companies. Initially, most of the companies are not willing to share the private data of their customer base, although they sometimes simply do not have another choice. The law enforcement can simply demand the companies to provide the requested information, and some execs even might face jail changes if they reveal government secrets, as pointed out by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Since governments can demand data from tech companies almost without limitations, you should take into consideration how much information various companies known about you. For example, Google is known to scan your email to serve you relevant ads, Dropbox checks the contents of your files, and thousands of websites or ads inject cookies into your web browser.
I am not doing anything wrong. Why should I care?
It may seem like government surveillance is not impacting you in any way since you are not a terrorist, not planning a murder of your neighbor or not engaging in ransomware distribution for money extortion. However, imagine a scenario where cameras are planted on your property, your movements across the country or abroad can be tracked meticulously, and every single conversation is recovered. As evident, this would immediately seem like a breach of privacy and a violation of the law.
When you provide information to advertisers or corporations, it is relatively voluntary, as most of the data tracking can be prevented if adequate security measures are applied. However, the government tracks you illegally, and you cannot opt-out of it. Essentially, you are treated like a criminal until you are proven to be not guilty, which directly goes against the Presumption of Innocence act.
As mentioned by Senior Lead Technologist Bill Hargenrader from Booz Allen Hamilton tech company, virtual space can be easily represented within the real world, although people are much more concerned about the safety of the latter:
One of the biggest issues with effectively protecting online privacy for the average Jane or Joe is the disassociation of the consequences with physical reality. I often use this analogy to hammer home this point: you wouldn’t leave your keys in the door at home would you? Or store your credit cards in your mailbox? We need to start thinking of our Internet privacy in that same light, as an extension of our personal physical domain.
Since the information can be passed on or even stolen, it can cause severe consequences in the wrong hands. For example, oppressive governments might use to track down activists who fight for human rights or fight the political opposition. Besides, certain groups of people (journalists, whistleblowers) within democratic societies might also be targeted and even killed under some circumstances.
There are also other factors that you should take into consideration:
- There is no proof that mass surveillance helps to stop terrorism. If anything, it provides more opportunities for unauthorized parties to gather data about unrelated targets and completely miss the real culprits.
- 80% of American citizens disapprove of online data and telecommunications tracking for the safe of safety.
No data protection measure is 100%, although it can make a significant difference when it comes to surveillance programs like PRISM
The government will not hire special forces to listen to your small talk while drinking coffee with your friend. Essentially, the government could access your computer and find out everything about you, regardless of which measures you apply to protect yourself. Thus, there is no way to stop certain institutions from hacking into your computer if enough resources are used for the purpose. However, it is highly unlikely that time and money will be invested to scrutinize an average citizen.
PRISM and other surveillance programs can be made significantly more difficult and more expensive to carry out on a massive scale if every single citizen would apply adequate measures to prevent data tracking. Thus, while it initially may seem like the government spying does not matter, its prevention is in the hands of people to a degree.
Stop the government, the ISP and tech companies from tracking you
The best way to prevent tracking is to encrypt the information that is transferred via the internet. Encryption is a secure method to cipher any type of data, so it becomes unreadable to anybody. This tactic is implemented by institutions that hold your most sensitive information, such as online banking PINs. Essentially, all customer data should be encrypted, although massive data breaches prove that companies often fail to invest in adequate security measures and disclose sensitive information to cybercriminals.
There are some extreme methods that would prevent tracking completely (such as using air-gapped computers), but you should start with very basic measures to make it more difficult for the government to tack you.
First of all, you should always pay attention to your URL bar of the web browser – you should always see a web address to start with HTTPS, which means that all the data transmitted through the website is encrypted. While this is basic information tracking prevention, it would not allow your ISP to track what links you click once you reach a destination of an HTTPS site. On the contrary, HTTP sites are not secure and should not ever be used for privacy reasons.
You can also use more secure web tools that focus on user privacy; this includes the new Microsoft's Edge, anonymous Tor network, DuckDuckGo search engine, and many others. These options do come with some downfalls, as the ISP can still track data through the installed apps, and excessive usage of Tor can attract the attention of the government. Besides, since Tor uses the so-called nodes to mask your IP and other information, it can be exceptionally slow and diminish the web browser experience significantly.
VPN service is the best option for home users
You have most likely heard about a VPN – a Virtual Private Network that uses a public network (the internet) that to connect a user to the destination site. This allows achieving complete anonymity, as anybody who would try to intercept this connection would not be able to read it due to the encryption.
While some users might think that a free VPN might be a great choice, you should not consider it as an option that could protect your privacy. In many cases, such services engage in their own surveillance practices and sell data to tech companies, generating profits in return. If anything, free VPNs defeat the purpose of employing this technology in the first place.
Therefore, you should employ a VPN that does not only protect you from online surveillance by third parties and the government but also would not track you. Besides, several other features are important when choosing an effective VPN, including connection speed, an efficient “Kill Switch,” and others. We recommend using Private Internet Access, as it does not track you, is equipped with more than 3,300 servers across 31 countries, allows 10 simultaneous connections, blocks all trackers, allows to bypass geo-restricted content, provides multiple gateways, and many more perks.
Keep in mind that a robust VPN can also help you protect unauthorized intrusions of hackers, so you can also be more sure about your online security, all while exercising your right to online privacy.