The Digital Age is marked by incredible advancements in technology. Never has it been easier to access information, whether for business or leisure. Unfortunately, many feel the Digital Age is also marked by a near-total loss of privacy. Almost no one wants to live in a society where the government monitors everything they do behind closed doors. As the old adage goes, “A man’s home is his castle”. But increasingly, we are living in a society where private corporations monitor nearly everything we do in public and in private. Where you go, what you search, what you do and read and eat, all this information is ripe for the taking – if you allow it to be. Unfortunately, many of the most popular digital services, such as Chrome and Facebook, store and utilize an incredible amount of information on their users by default. Opting out of this is often tedious and deceitful.
Like many others, I do not consider this acceptable. While some governments make an effort to increase transparency and simplify the privacy policies of corporations, there is a very long way to go and, unfortunately, governments can only do so much. Luckily, principled private companies do exist, and some of them want to empower you with online privacy. Sadly, many people have never heard of these companies or their services. This is partially due to past efforts by the bigger fish to make it hard for these services to achieve popularity and accessibility. So, let’s go over four of my favorite privacy-protecting services to keep you safe and anonymous online.
If you’ve been using Chrome for a long time, I hate to break it to you, but Google knows a whole lot about you. Most people use search engines to search for things of interest such as hobbies, politics, clothing and entertainment. All these searches, over time, allow Google to create a comprehensive file on you and your interests. Thanks to your browsing, Google now knows that you go hiking in your local area on weekends, prefer Marvel Comics over DC, have certain political leanings, only wear plain tees, and enjoy Indian cuisine. Perhaps Google knowing your comic, fashion and food preferences isn’t so bad, but your location and political views, for example, are sensitive information that can be better off kept private.
Worse yet, thanks to what Google knows about you, you will receive ads targeted specifically at your tastes. Using the previous examples, you would receive ads for plain tees, Marvel products, and books by authors of your political leanings. As if it wasn’t already hard enough not to splurge money online, the ads you see are now predatory, targeting your every interest with unnerving accuracy. An individual shouldn’t have to sacrifice the way they utilize the Web to keep their information private. They should be able to search what they want without the fear of being vigilantly profiled.
Cue, DuckDuckGo. Launched in 2008, DuckDuckGo is the ultimate search engine for user privacy and anonymity. Notice that I said privacy and anonymity? That’s because not only does DuckDuckGo not share your web browsing with anyone, they also don’t keep tabs on it themselves. Each time you hop on DuckDuckGo, it’s as if you’re a new user, with no history of having used the search engine — total anonymity. No more targeted ads or personalized search results, only what is the most relevant and keyword-related.
DuckDuckGo CEO and Founder Gabriel Weinberg explained the business model in a post on Quora.
…search advertisers buy search ads by bidding on keywords… If you search for ‘car’, you are more likely to respond to a car ad than something you searched for last week.
For example, if you type in ‘dishwasher’ you will get a dishwasher ad.
If you ask me, this is a far better approach to advertising and revenue-making than what Google uses on Chrome. I’ve got enough clothes already, but Chrome keeps hopelessly throwing clothing ads at me, hoping I’ll purchase yet another button-down shirt. More importantly, it just gets annoying. It’s tiresome seeing the same old ads following you around wherever you go on the Web. DuckDuckGo’s ads don’t annoy me because they feel natural, relevant, and not out-of-place. We all know that Web browsers couldn’t exist without advertising. Personally, I just don’t want those ads serving as a constant reminder that I’m having tabs kept on me.
DuckDuckGo sum themselves up best, “No tracking, no ad targeting, just searching.”; a godsend for the private individual.
Check out DuckDuckGo at duckduckgo.com/
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is something I think everyone should use. With a VPN you can access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server, hiding your online activity. Apart from general privacy, some neat features of a VPN include accessing region-restricted content like Netflix USA from Australia for example, and websites that are blocked by your internet service provider or country. Basically, you tell the VPN what you want to access on the Web, and the VPN accesses it on your behalf. Thus, the site you are visiting thinks you are located where the VPN server is. Also, with a VPN, your internet service provider can’t see the sites you visit or anything else you do; only that encrypted data is traveling to a server. Most popular VPNs can be used across devices, from laptop to mobile.
John Mason of TheBestVPN.com wrote an excellent article on seven benefits of a VPN, which I highly recommend reading for more information on why you should use one. In it, he even covers how you can save money on your online purchases with a VPN.
John also wrote an excellent breakdown of the best VPN services on the market, comparing everything from pricing to average speed and features. It’s worth reading if you need some help choosing the perfect VPN for your needs.
Personally, I use Surfshark because of how well it is priced for its features.
Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram text messaging are all great for chatting about the day-to-day, but I wouldn’t trust them with sensitive information. If you need to communicate to someone your financial information, a business secret or even a personal message of great privacy, it can be risky using these services. This is because such messages are often stored indefinitely, if not permanently; can only be deleted on your end, can be screenshotted, and don’t use end-to-end encryption. Telegram doesn’t have any of these issues.
On Telegram, you can create ‘secret chats’ which use end-to-end encryption, leave no trace on Telegram’s servers, have a self-destruct timer, and don’t allow forwarding or screenshotting. Private groups of up to 200,000 members can be created, which has sparked many online communities to utilize Telegram. Best of all, it’s free and has no ads. It is no wonder they hit 200 million active users in March 2018.
You’re probably wondering how such a service remains free and ad free. Telegram was founded by wealthy Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai. The former made a “generous donation” to fund the service.
If Telegram runs out, we will introduce non-essential paid options to support the infrastructure and finance developer salaries. But making profits will never be an end-goal for Telegram.telegram.org/faq#q-what-is-telegram-what-do-i-do-here
While this is very heartening, I suspect that Pavel Durov may simply make another sizeable donation to keep Telegram afloat, should they ever run out of funds. After all, his net worth as of 2019 is 2.7 billion USD.
Fortunately, as of 2017, Google has stopped scanning the contents of E-Mails on Gmail accounts for advertising purposes. However, it still scans them for many other reasons. Unfortunately, many third-party apps can also read the contents of your Gmail. This is concerning, as Gmail is the most popular E-Mail service by number of users. But it isn’t just Gmail. Most popular, free E-Mailing services are the same. In short, these E-Mailing services just don’t offer the encryption that a privacy-conscious individual should want, namely end-to-end encryption. And rather intentionally so, otherwise the service provider themselves wouldn’t be able to see the contents of your E-Mails.
Fortunately, ProtonMail exists. ProtonMail is an E-Mail service founded in 2014 at CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, where English scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee forever reshaped the world by inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. On ProtonMail, E-Mails are secured with end-to-end encryption, no personal information is required to create an account, and no IP logs are kept. This means that neither ProtonMail nor third-parties can read your E-Mails, and your E-Mail account cannot be linked to you through your IP address.
ProtonMail is also incorporated in Switzerland, with all their servers located in Switzerland. This is a huge boon to their already impressive service, as it means all user data is protected under Switzerland’s world-renowned privacy laws. Administrators at ProtonMail have explained in a blog on their website what the advantages are of being based in Switzerland. These include not being legally obliged to backdoor their E-Mail systems or engage in mass surveillance for United States intelligence agencies if requested.
[ProtonMail] does not even possess the keys required to decrypt user data. As a result, even if ProtonMail was forced to turn over all our computer systems, email contents will continue to be encrypted.protonmail.com/blog/switzerland/
Basic ProtonMail accounts are free and offer 500MB storage and 150 messages per day. Paid accounts offer even more storage and features; and professional plans are offered so that businesses can E-Mail with peace of mind, knowing their internal dealings and business secrets are not being read by anyone except the intended recipient.
I urge anyone who considers their privacy sacred to try these services. It doesn’t have to cost you a cent to secure your online privacy, unless you choose a high-end VPN. As with all the best things in life, online privacy is free.
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Mitchell has a Bachelor of Arts with Majors in Journalism and Foreign Relations; and a Diploma of Digital Design.