by Amy Slay, pedagogical consultant for DLINQ
Our lives play out in digital arenas. Our identities and relationships, personal and professional, are simultaneously supported and endangered by the internet. While the digital can be a place for connection, expression, and activism, it also presents deeply troubling threats. Hackers steal and manipulate information; trolls harass and intimidate behind a veil of anonymity; the NSA’s warrantless surveillance of American citizens persists; and companies commodify us by collecting, mining, and selling behemoth amounts of data generated by our online activity. When we surf the web, message our friends, or accept the terms and conditions of a new app, the safety of our data is in the hands of the owners of those spaces and tools, despite the fact that there is little accountability for how our data are collected and (not) protected.
Here are some actions you can take to protect yourself by being intentional and critical in your use of digital tools and platforms:
- Use the free Signal app or browser extension for calling and texting with end-to-end encryption. To contact someone via Signal, they have to have the app downloaded, too. The contents of your conversations will only be accessible to you and the person you’re talking to. Whatsapp is a similar tool, but the value of its end-to-end encryption is called into question by the predatory data practices of its parent company: Facebook. (If you missed them, check out last week’s posts about safer and healthy social media practices).
- Use non-commercial search engines (or browser extensions) such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage. As opposed to commercial platforms like Google, these tools do not collect or track your search history and personal information. Depending on how extensively you use Google (Gmail, Youtube, Drive, Maps, Chrome, etc.), there are also steps you can take to better understand and be in (somewhat) more control of what Google records about you.
- Browse privately on your devices. When it comes to privacy, not all web-browsers are created equal. Use an open-source browser like Mozilla Firefox, or go anonymous with Tor browser. There is also an app specifically designed for iOS (Apple) devices, called the Onion browser. While popular browsers like Chrome and Safari have a private browsing option, this “simply keeps your computer from keeping a record of where you go. It doesn’t stop sites from tracking and collecting data on you, and doesn’t do anything to protect your online privacy or security. It does, however, keep anyone using your computer from knowing where you went” (Source: Bromwich, 2016).
- Protect your clicks, page visits, searches, and location information from spyware and trackers by installing an adblocker like Privacy Badger.
- Take encryption to the next level with a virtual private network (VPN). “A VPN creates a private, encrypted connection… all of your internet activity gets “tunneled” through this private network… When you access a website with a VPN connection, the website will see the request coming from the VPN server, not you. Someone trying to see what was being passed between your computer and the VPN server won’t be able to see what you’re doing: it’s all encrypted” (Source: A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity). Most VPN service providers charge a fee, but there are also some free alternatives.
As your approach to digital privacy evolves, remember that using new tools (or using old tools differently) may take some getting used to. Adjusting to new digital safety practices and interfaces may be uncomfortable at first, but well worth the effort.
Electronic Frontier Foundation, Choosing your tools
HACK*BLOSSOM, Find the right tools for your security needs
HACK*BLOSSOM, A DIY guide to feminist cybersecurity