The year 2017 is already here. We, as humans, have created the opportunity to come much closer than we have ever been. We ease this interconnection for ourselves with the large network that we call The Internet. But with this global interconnection, we are more prone to losing our online privacy and anonymity than ever before.
Internet Growth and Online Privacy Concerns
Source: The the International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report, and database, and World Bank estimates
According to the World Bank, we started this century with 6.7 % of the world on the Internet. Today, that figure has risen to 44 %. That is more than 3 billion people coming online in comparison to a mere 400 million in the year 2000. It is a remarkable increase.
But, any system that grows at this rate is quite likely to amplify the scale of its problems. Likewise, this global Internet village has its set of global challenges. One such problem is the role of online privacy and anonymity in this new online society. As is the norm today, we expect the solution to work at the push of a button. In his 1986 satirical piece Homage To Qwert Yuiop: Essays, Anthony Burgess famously said,
To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world.
This quote had a very different meaning back in 1986 English society. But, the thought has equal value today when we talk about online privacy. Privacy is essential for everyone. It is important to be in absolute control of your identity, safeguard your sensitive information and to be able to make an unbiased choice. This is possible only when the choices presented to you are not limited by the online information collected about you.
Why Online Privacy Matters
When it comes to our offline world, we strive to maintain some degree of privacy and anonymity. Will we be comfortable with the post office reading all our emails? We buy curtains, lock our doors and put passcodes on our phones. We do we know anyone who will willingly give us their signatures on a blank paper either, just because they have nothing to hide.
When it comes to the online world, we are comfortable with most of these behaviors. We give out personal information to sign up for websites. We give out our credit card information, social security number, date of birth and digital signatures readily. This data then goes hopping through servers that other people own, people we know nothing about.
Source: Netcraft and World Bank population estimates
Online Privacy concerns have gradually risen over the last few years. After the recent NSA document leaks by Edward Snowden, people are much more aware of WhatsApp Privacy and Facebook Messenger privacy. Even WhatsApp recognized this necessity and made their services much more secure by adding encryption. Recently, Apple too had to add better encryption services to their iPhone 7 offering. These point events do not happen in a void. This is a trend where Internet services are moving towards better security and privacy practices.
This trend is not limited to apps and the mobile world alone. It started way back with websites and their servers going secure. There are more than 1.5 million distinct third party security certificates on the Internet as of today, securing different sites on the Internet. While going on a secure website makes your actions on that server secure, we at Tom’s VPN firmly believe that online security should be end-to-end.
Government Online Surveillance ProgramsThe control over information is the most powerful weapon any Government can have. This has given rise to numerous surveillance programs which let Governments engage in often unconstitutional and unlawful passive warfare, sometimes with their own citizen. Table below lists some popular
|Surveillance Program Name||Countries Involved||Program Description|
|ECHELON||AUS, CAN, NZL, UK, USA||Intercepts communications between individuals. Flags individuals based on keywords and adds them to a tracking list.|
|Golden Shield Project||CHN||Automated + Manual Surveillance. The former covers sensitive topics like democracy, dissent, and Government criticism. The later is carried out by officials and citizen volunteers who go through chat forums, emails and blogs all day looking for content that poses any remote threat, direct or indirect, to the status quo for the Government.|
|Project 6||DEU||Carries out global surveillance in close partnership with the CIA. This project collects photos, license plate numbers, search histories and telephone calls of purported jihadists.|
|Central Monitoring System||IND||Centralized Telephone Interception program operated by the Government of India.|
|SORM||RUS||ISPs are required to install a surveillance program on their servers to track credit card transactions, email and browsing activity. ISPs must also connect their infrastructure to the FSB, the Russian federal security service. It has expanded to include social network traffic and chat forums.|
|X-Keyscore||SWE||The X-Keyscore program engages in both active and passive surveillance by monitoring and flagging certain race, sex, ethnicity, and geolocation specific to individuals. This lets X-Keyscore read specific user actions like email or telephone communications and expand it to multiple users based on this metadata, identifying potential future targets.|
|Mastering the Internet||UK||the GCHQ taps into undersea cables that carry Internet traffic in and out of the UK and analyzes it at GCHQ Bude station. This makes the UK the largest data collecting body.|
|PRISM||US||Allows the NSA to monitor live communication over video, audio, chats and file transfers, and also access stored information in emails, photos and social networks. It also collects data from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Skype.|
|Here is a complete list of Government surveillance projects|
This list sounds like a conspiracy theory or a plot for a sci-fi movie. However, as a fact, the documents leaked by Edward Snowden confirms the existence of each of these programs. Governments have even confirmed the existence of some of these programs. In the media too, various news publications have talked about them, and security journals have been covering them regularly. This is a reality we live in today.
Where Does Online Privacy Apply?
Besides being magnificent, open and massive, the Internet is also an unsecured network. If you do a quick search on Google for the term hackers steal data, for the last month alone the results will give you an estimate of what happens when you let your information float around unencrypted.
When it comes to online privacy, our primary concern should be about securing our sensitive account information from hackers and snooping governments. A common wrong notion among many people is that encryption is for those who have something to hide. Needless to say, encrypted connections are for everyone regardless of whether you have something to hide. You can encrypt your online data to protect it from hackers, from the government, and from your ISP.
Without encryption, you are just another valuable collection of open data. This is an invitation for trouble.
Online Privacy Issue: How Can we be safe?
We have already mentioned in the above section that hackers and Government are the major threats to your online Privacy. Now, there is a bunch of things you can take care of from your end. Taking small precautions can save you from a lot of trouble. You might already know these, but still, it is a good time to start now if you haven’t already.
- Use Private Browsing mode in your web browsers whenever possible. Check browser plugins and remove any plugin that you are not using.
- Use system cleaner applications to automate browser cookie deletion process.
- Keep Strong passwords for online accounts. A combination of at least ten characters including upper and lower case letters. Also, you should add numbers to it.
- Do not use the same password on every website.
- If you are using a WiFi connection at home, make sure to have a secure connection setup.
- Do not download files from unknown sources.
- Regularly update applications and Operating System. These updates often include critical security patches.
- If you are entering your personal information on a website, make sure it uses SSL encryption. You can check if the website has a ‘https’ at the beginning of its URL.
- Avoid keeping very sensitive data on cloud storages. In case, if you have to do so, keep those files encrypted.
- Use a good Antivirus protection. By doing so, you are not only protecting yourself but also other people. As a fact, if your system is infected, it can be used as a pawn in a larger Cyber attack. The massive 2016 Dyn Cyberattack is one suitable example for this case. Of course, there are more.
Big Brother is Watching You!
There are no simple tricks to hide your data transfer from your ISP and in turn from the Government. At Tom’s VPN, we believe that anonymity and online privacy are about securing your entire online activity. There is only one family of tools that lets us do this- VPNs or Virtual Private Network.
VPN was originally designed for companies to overcome their geographic limitations. However, with the Internet, VPNs have also emerged to be a powerful privacy tool over the Internet. If you are new to this term, you can Learn more about what is a VPN.
Worldwide VPN Searches
A good VPN encrypts and Anonymizes your connections to the Internet. Anyone spying on your connection will only see encrypted illegible characters.
It is worth mentioning that a VPN alone is not enough to protect your online privacy. You should also consider some of the points mentioned above, along with other security and privacy measures. Nonetheless, using a VPN is a necessary step towards protecting ourselves from online privacy issues.
Staying secure and private online is mostly about being in control of what data you send out from your device. The world is waking up to online privacy and related issues. It’s time we start being a part of this trend. Encryption standards are getting better every few years, and people are becoming more aware of online privacy issues as well.
Anonymity and online privacy are not just about keeping your identity secure online anymore. It could also cover bypassing geo-blocking for the frequent traveler. In cases like these, anonymity worries people more than privacy does. VPN services address all these issues seamlessly. They have evolved to be more robust, fast and secure. Moreover, they all are super easy to use and start working at the push of a button.