Information security is the ever evolving process of using the best tools at your disposal to protect your data. Online privacy is about retaining control over who should be able to access your data as well as if, when, how, and for what purpose your data should be collected, stored, used, or shared.
What follows is a list of measures and suggestions you can consider adopting in order to better address these important aspects of your life in the age of surveillance.
Software is complex, flawed, and ever evolving.
One of the most important things you can do to protect your information is to keep your software (like your apps and your various operating systems) always up-to-date, making sure at the same time they are recent enough to still be supported by their developer (it being an indie developer, or a big company like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Ubiquiti, and Samsung). By doing so you’ll not only make sure that you have access to the latest features and fixes, but that you’ll also be running the most secure version of any given software product, at any given time.
Keep in mind that it’s not only your phone, tablet, laptop, and desktop computers that rely on regular software and firmware updates to function securely, improve over time, and introduce new features. Routers (which are at the heart of any local area network like your home network) and IoT devices such as smart speakers, lights, fridges, doorbells, TVs, TV remotes, etc. also rely on regular updates for the very same reasons.
“All code is sketchy, some code is just less sketchy than other. Running on your devices there’s a lot of code and it has problems in it. It is written by humans and humans make mistakes at some point. You have (ideally) teams of engineers constantly working behind these OSes and apps to find the mistakes and fix them. All they need you to do is click “Update” and maybe restart. If you don’t do that, that means that there is a way out there to exploit your device or your software that the world kind of knows about. Until you click “Update” you are easier and cheaper to hack.”
You can help avoid other people gaining access to your personal data (as well as the personal data the people in your life might be sharing with you) by setting up a strong and unique password (sometimes referred to as a passcode or a PIN) on each of your devices.
Think about the personal information you’re storing on them (things like notes, contacts, private conversations, photos and videos, web browsing history, etc.), as well as the personal information accessible through them (things like files uploaded to the cloud, emails, financial information, and other information stored in your online accounts). You probably wouldn’t want all of this to be left unprotected every time you leave one of your devices unattended, or in the event you lose one of them altogether. The people sharing personal information with you probably wouldn’t want this either.
Once you’ve set up a password, it might be possible (based on the device you’re using) to enable some form of biometric authentication. In this case you’ll also be able to unlock your devices by way of scanning parts of your body such as your fingerprints, your face, or your iris.
This can help you make the action of unlocking your devices quicker and easier, while at the same time empower you to use passwords that are stronger and to reduce the time window between when you lock your devices and when a password or biometric factor is required to unlock them (since the friction of having to frequently type your way into your devices will no longer be there). It can also help you keep your passwords private when using your devices in front of other people (such as in public venues) or in places employing video surveillance.
Note that not all forms and implementations of biometric authentication are created equal (e.g. some can be fooled by a simple printout or video of your face). This means that you should probably do a bit of research beforehand to make sure you’re comfortable with the level of security a given biometric system is able to provide. If you’re not comfortable with what you find (or if for any reason biometric authentication is not an option for you) just stick to a strong and unique password.
A good way to go about creating strong, unique, and memorable passwords is through the Diceware method and similar methods. This will result in passphrases that are strong and unique, but also easier to remember than random strings of characters.
As you’ve probably noticed every word on those lists is identified by a unique string of five numbers each. What you need to do is roll the dice until you get the first five numbers: The corresponding word will be the first one in your passphrase! Keep throwing the dice until you feel your passphrase is strong enough. It is generally recommended people create passphrases that are at least five to seven words long.
Here are a few resources on the topic:
- How to Make a Super-Secure Password Using Dice (EFF)
- EFF Dice-Generated Passphrases (EFF)
- Passphrases That You Can Memorize — But That Even The NSA Can’t Guess (The Intercept)
- The Diceware Passphrase FAQ (Arnold G. Reinhold)
A note: You should not (in most cases) share your passwords with other people. If you have the suspicion (or you know) that one of your passwords is compromised, change it as soon as possible.
You can turn on device encryption on both your devices’ internal storage and on any other external drives you may be using (such as SD cards, Hard Disk Drives, Solid State Drives, and USB flash drives) to make it harder for anyone to extract data from them.
Data stored on iPhone and iPad devices can be easily encrypted by setting up a passcode (optionally coupled with Touch ID or Face ID).
Some Android devices (such as the ones in Google’s Pixel line) are encrypted by default. Devices shipping with Android 10 or later are required to support File-Based Encryption and people running Android 4.4 or later on their devices should be able to manually enable some form of device encryption by visiting the Security (or Security & Location) section of their Settings app.
Windows devices can be encrypted using the built-in BitLocker feature (available to consumers as part of Windows 10 Pro, but not available to Windows 10 Home users).
macOS devices can be encrypted using FileVault, a feature that is part of the OS and available via System Preferences.
If your computer is running a version of Windows that doesn’t include BitLocker or if you’re looking for a solution that is both open-source and available across Windows, macOS, and Linux than look no further than VeraCrypt, from the bright minds at IDRIX.
What VeraCrypt allows you to do is:
- Create an encrypted file container
This allows you to create easily copyable and sharable encrypted containers to store your files.
- Encrypt a non-system partition or drive / Create a volume within a partition or drive
This allows you to encrypt things like SD cards, USB flash drives, Hard Disk Drives, as well as individual partitions of those drives (as long as they’re not system partition, AKA where your operating system is installed).
- Encrypt the system partition or entire system drive
This allows you to encrypt either the entirety of your computer’s drive or just the partition in which the operating system resides. This feature is only available on Windows.
Keep in mind that encrypted devices might need to be powered down for the data they contain to be fully encrypted.
Here are a few resources to go along what we covered here:
- How To Encrypt Your Devices (DuckDuckGo)
- How to Encrypt Your iPhone (EFF)
- VeraCrypt Documentation (VeraCrypt)
- Encryption toolkit for media makers: A VeraCrypt guide (Freedom of the Press Foundation)
Find my device
You can enable features such as Find My Device (available on Windows and Android devices) and Find My (available on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS devices) to have remote access to some of the following actions and information:
- Locate your device on a map.
- Have your device play a sound.
- Lock your device and have it display a custom message.
- Erase all the data stored on your device.
In addition to this, Apple’s Activation Lock and Google’s phone protection features go a step forward and help prevent unauthorized parties from using your lost or stolen devices even after being remotely erased.
Note that by enabling all of this you will be regularly sending your location information to a company such as Apple, Microsoft, or Google (depending on the device in question). You should therefore balance the benefits of remotely locating, securing, and erasing your devices with your willingness to disclose such personal information to a third-party.
Keep in mind that this is not the only way your devices may be broadcasting your location info to third-parties. More on this in the Privacy settings and policies chapter.
Well-regarded options when it comes to choosing one are:
- 1Password – Downloads page, Beginner’s guide
- LastPass – Download page, Beginner’s guide
- KeePassXC – Download page, Beginner’s guide
Picture a string of 30+ characters (or as many characters as you want, really) made up of randomly generated letters, numbers, and symbols: That’s a password!
123456, dictionary words, movie titles, dates, etc. are not passwords…
You can approximate the strength of your passwords at PasswordSecurity.info. You can also jump to the Data breaches chapter for more info about how to check if your information and your passwords have previously been exposed in a known data breach and what to do about it.
Password managers usually come with the ability to auto-fill things like usernames, passwords, and other info either directly via the app on mobile devices or using a dedicated browser extension on laptop and desktop computers. Look for these extensions on your password manager website, or in your web browser’s extension store.
Creating and maintaining an encrypted and possibly well organized list of all your accounts’ information (and any other kind of sensitive information you might want to store there) is a big plus for both security and convenience.
Even when using a password manager you’ll probably need to create a few strong and memorable passwords for things like your master password (your password manager password) and maybe a few of your main accounts. A good way to go about facing this issue is (as mentioned in the Device password chapter) using passphrases created with the help of the Diceware method or similar methods. Hop there for more information about this.
Even though a password manager is the best solution for most people, there will be cases in which (for whatever reason) a software solution is just not viable. If this is you, keep in mind that managing your credentials with a physical password book that you keep someplace safe might still be better than not managing them at all.
Once you’ve set up strong and unique passwords (or passphrases) for your accounts, you’re pretty much done with them. Companies and services that follow modern security practices should only require a password change upon indication or suspicion of compromise.
A note: You should not (in most cases) share your passwords and passphrases with other people.
You can enable Multi-Factor Authentication (Two-Factor Authentication, 2-Step Verification, etc. are all forms of MFA) to significantly enhance the security posture of your accounts by way of adding extra steps to sign-in processes that would otherwise require you to only provide a single factor (like a password) to be logged in.
You’ve probably already used some form of MFA before. If you own a credit card and go to an ATM to withdraw cash you’re asked to put in your card and provide a PIN: That’s MFA!
These additional factors can be something you know (like a password or a PIN), something you have (like a credit card, a phone, or a security key), or something you are (via a fingerprint, face, or iris scan). When paired together they make it much more difficult for bad people to try and steal your information.
In the case of the online companies and services that support MFA, second factors are usually implemented as one-time verification codes delivered to your phone (something you have) via SMS, cellular phone call, or email, or generated by an authenticator app installed on your phone (again, something you have). In some cases MFA can also come in the form of a push notifications delivered to your phone with a simple Yes/No question, or the ability to set up a security key, a small physical device able to provide a higher level of protection against common online attacks such as phishing.
Keep in mind that even though MFA is an overall improvement to your accounts’ security and any kind of MFA is better than no MFA at all, not all MFA methods are created equal:
- SMS-based MFA is indeed better than nothing (unless codes sent to your phone via SMS are also used as a single-factor authentication method for account recovery), but it also involves verification codes being sent over a communication channel that is inherently insecure, frequently non-verifiable, and easily prone to social engineering and spoofing attacks.
- App-based MFA is both more convenient (it doesn’t require Internet or cellular connectivity to work) and significantly more secure than SMS-based MFA.
- Security key-based MFA, on the other hand, is widely considered to be the most secure MFA option currently available.
Also keep in mind that the “flavors” of MFA available (as well as how they’re referred to) can vary quite a bit from one service to the other. This means that sometimes your preferred MFA method might not be available and that some other times you might need to check extra carefully to find the MFA option a company has decided to call in some not-very-straight-forward way. Here’s some help: Turn It On (TeleSign)
When enabling MFA, you’ll likely be prompted to save one or more recovery codes or backup codes. These will allow you to get back into your accounts in case you lose access to your MFA device. Make sure you keep them safe in your password manager, or somewhere else that is safe.
Popular authenticator apps are LastPass Authenticator, 1Password, Microsoft Authenticator, Google Authenticator, FreeOTP, and Authy. Popular security keys are Yubico’s YubiKeys, and Google’s Titan Security Keys.
Here are a few resources that can help you choose the MFA method that’s best for you:
- Decoding two-factor authentication: which solution is right for you? (Access Now)
- A Guide to Common Types of Two-Factor Authentication on the Web (EFF)
- Two passwords are always better than one (Jessy Irwin)
No matter how layered your security approach is, your accounts’ security are only as strong as your “I forgot my password” settings are. That is to say that you might want to check those out as well, as part of your MFA All The Things journey.
You can prioritize the use of end-to-end encrypted communication tools like Signal (here’s a beginner’s guide) and ProtonMail over unencrypted options such as cellular phone calls and SMS or non end-to-end encrypted options such as Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct, Snapchat, Telegram, Twitter’s Direct Messages, Skype, WeChat, Gmail, and Outlook.com to make sure (to a reasonable degree) that only you and the people you choose to communicate with have access to the information you share. No third-parties like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, other companies, rogue employees, governments, or malicious actors will be able to access, exploit, or misuse the content of your conversations.
End-to-end encrypted communication services usually rely on a technology called public-key cryptography, where a public and a private key are assigned to every user.
When someone sends a message to someone else (or a voice message, or an attachment, or a voice/video call, and so on) that data is encrypted locally on the sender’s device using the recipient’s public key and is then sent over the Internet to the recipient, where it’s decrypted locally on their device using their private key (which, as the name suggests, is never shared). Voilà!
Public key fingerprints (which are relatively short sequences of characters that uniquely identify a public key) can be used to make sure your conversations are end-to-end encrypted and to verify that the people on the other end of your chats are really who they say they are. Various services refer to these in different ways: Signal calls them Safety Numbers while ProtonMail refers to the process of comparing them as Address Verification.
Please note that even though WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) and other popular messengers do protect the content of your conversations with end-to-end encryption by default, that doesn’t necessarily mean they also protect information about your identity and your activity as well. This kind of information (which is still personal information and might in some cases be as sensitive as the actual content of your conversations) is commonly known as metadata, and can include information about who you are, where you are, who you communicate with and when, who’s in your contact list, how and when you use the app, etc.
In case you prefer keeping WhatsApp around because for any reason Signal is not a viable solution to reach out to some of the people you want to communicate with, then you should consider enabling security notifications to make sure you’re notified if a contact’s public key fingerprint (WhatsApp calls them Security Codes) changes and disabling unencrypted cloud backups (which as a feature defeats the entire purpose of providing end-to-end encryption in the first place).
ProtonMail provides both end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption. While someone’s ProtonMail inbox is always protected with zero-access encryption (meaning no one except the user has access to it), the availability of end-to-end encryption depends on the email services used by all the people involved in a conversation. The easiest way to make sure your email correspondence is end-to-end encrypted is making sure all parties involved are using ProtonMail.
Here are some additional resources and articles you might want to take a look at:
- Secure Messaging Apps Comparison (Mark Williams)
- Secure Messaging? More Like A Secure Mess. (EFF)
- Where WhatsApp Went Wrong: EFF’s Four Biggest Security Concerns (EFF)
- Why I told my friends to stop using WhatsApp and Telegram (freeCodeCamp)
Note: A few of the services categorized as non end-to-end encrypted in this chapter provide end-to-end encryption as an optional feature. This means that private conversations are not treated as the foundation, but rather as an afterthought.
When connecting to a secure website (a website that uses HTTPS) you get three very important things: First you get proof of identity; this means that you can trust that a given website is really who it says it is, not some other website you’ve been redirected to without your knowledge or consent. Second you get confidentiality; this means that you can trust that the exchange of information between you and a given website is protected from eavesdropping. Third you get integrity; this means that you can trust that the data flowing to and from a given website is not modified in any way.
This highlights how much HTTP websites (or non-secure websites) are vulnerable and how they simply cannot be trusted. In fact unsecured webpages can and are used by malicious actors, governments, and ISPs around the world to:
- Gain access to the data flowing between users and the webpages they’re visiting
Think again before typing login credentials, credit card information, or any other kind of personal information into a page that is not secure. Keep also in mind that any unsecured webpage you visit can represent valuable information for ISPs able to use or sell personal information for advertising or other purposes, or for governments engaged in mass surveillance.
- Manipulate webpages in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of purposes
This malicious behavior can range in scope from altering the content of a webpage (with the purpose of injecting ads, malicious links, or whole sets of UI controls), to completely replacing the content of a webpage (essentially blocking it), to redirecting traffic to a different webpage altogether (something ISPs seem to be doing A. Lot.).
- Do targeted censorship
In the case of secure webpages everything after the “/” (forward slash) is encrypted. This means that if you visit any Wikipedia page all a potentially malicious actor can see is: https://www.wikipedia.org. This also means that a repressive government (or an unregulated ISP) has to choose between blocking Wikipedia entirely, or not blocking Wikipedia at all.
HTTPS is at the very heart of a lot of the things that we rely on as we go about our daily lives. It is a website administrator’s duty to upgrade their website to HTTPS and it is a user’s right to request administrators do so if they haven’t already.
You can make sure you’re not visiting an unsecured website by keeping an eye out for the address bar: If you don’t see a lock icon or you see some kind of warning (like a crossed-out lock icon, a “Not Secure” message, or an exclamation mark icon) then the website you’re visiting is served over a connection that is not secure. If this is the case you should avoid entering any private information on that website and, if possible, try not to use it in the future as well.
Some websites may be available both via unsecured HTTP and secure HTTPS. Browser extensions such as EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere (which requires sites to use HTTPS whenever possible) can help here.
Keep in mind that in some circumstances the act of visiting a webpage could be in itself considered very personal information and that just because you deleted your info from a search box, an online form, or any other type of input field before submitting it doesn’t necessarily mean the website in question has not logged what you entered anyway.
Please note: The fact that a page is secure doesn’t necessarily mean it is also safe. As HTTPS adoption is growing worldwide, the number of malicious websites using it is also growing.
Here are a few additional resources you might want to check out:
- How HTTPS works (DNSimple)
- Here’s Why Your Static Website Needs HTTPS (Troy Hunt)
- Does my site need HTTPS? (Matt Holt)
- HTTPS Is Easy! (Troy Hunt)
DNS over HTTPS
Anything that’s connected to the Internet (websites included) is identified by a string of characters known as an IP address. This means that when you type your favourite website’s address (lets say that’s Wikipedia) into your address bar there needs to be a service your browser can contact to have “wikipedia.org” translated into an IP address it can actually locate and connect to. Entering the Internet’s directory: the Domain Name System, or DNS for short.
DNS is what enables you to deal with website addresses that make sense, rather than the random strings of characters that make up an IP address.
DNS services are usually provided by your ISP by default, but there are a number of alternative DNS providers you can switch your devices to if the default option is not what you’re looking for.
Just like it was the case with connections to most websites not being secure until relatively recent times, DNS services are (to this day) for the most part still provided over anachronistic unsecured connections. This means that even though websites such as Wikipedia.org are made available over HTTPS, the DNS requests your devices make in order to connect to those websites are frequently unencrypted and are prone to eavesdropping, tampering, and blocking by other people in your network, your ISP, or other malicious parties able to intercept them.
The DNS over HTTPS (DoH) protocol fixes this by allowing companies and organization that operate DNS servers to deliver DNS requests over a secure HTTPS connection.
There are a number of companies that are starting to make this option available across their DNS offering, most notably Cloudflare with their 184.108.40.206 service. People interested in switching the default DNS settings on their mobile devices to Cloudflare and take advantage of DoH can download the 220.127.116.11 app available on both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Switching to 18.104.22.168 on your desktop or laptop computer while retaining the benefits of DoH means enabling DNS over HTTPS in your web browser (if you’re using the Firefox Browser), or venture into installing the open source Cloudflare client for Windows, macOS, and Linux by following the documentation available here.
If you’re looking for more protection than what HTTPS and DoH alone can provide, you might want to check out the VPN chapter.
When it comes to protecting yourself while you browse the web, picking a good web browser (one that is both easy to use and able to protect your security and privacy as you do so) is very important.
Consider trying out the Firefox Browser if you haven’t recently done so. It comes with a strong set of security and privacy-oriented features and capabilities such as Firefox Monitor Notifications to alert users when they visit a website that has had a recently reported data breach, the ability (as mentioned above) to enable DNS over HTTPS right inside the browser by just checking a box, as well as some powerful tracking protections features and extensions you can learn about in the Online tracking and advertising chapter.
Firefox products are also not controlled by a data-hungry company like Google but rather by a not-for-profit organization (Mozilla) focused on doing right by their users and make the Internet a better place for everybody.
Here’s some help, if you need it: Switching from Chrome to Firefox (Mozilla)
If you need a Chromium-based web browser (Chromium is the open source project on which Google Chrome is based) then consider trying out the Brave Browser. Just like Google Chrome it has access to the extensions available via the Chrome Web Store, but unlike Google Chrome comes with an interesting set of privacy-preserving features as well as a stronger overall commitment to user privacy and security.
If you’re looking for a tool to browse the web anonymously and/or circumvent censorship, than the Tor Browser is probably the browser you’re looking for.
Privacy settings and policies
The apps and services you use come with (among other things) privacy policies and a set number of default privacy settings. Those can include policies and settings that let companies like Facebook and Google use your personal data to target you with ads, as well as permissions that grant the apps you use access to things like your camera, microphone, geographic location, contacts, calendar, photos, etc.
Since in many cases security and privacy do not come as the default, consider carefully reviewing these privacy policies and settings to make sure you’re comfortable with the amount of data about you any given app or service is able to access, collect, store, use, or share. Doing this could mean:
- Reading privacy policies and terms of service
When you sign up for a service, or open an app for the first time you are also agreeing to policies and terms that will govern your relationship with that app or service as well as what you and the company behind it can and cannot do. Consider reading them.
- Checking your app permissions
How many of your apps really need access to your location, microphone, camera, or contact list in order to work properly?
- Checking your apps’ and services’ privacy settings
Maybe you want to protect your WhatsApp app with a PIN? Maybe you’re not OK with iOS automatically backing up your unencrypted messages to the cloud? Have you ever done a Privacy Checkup, or visited the Privacy, Apps and Websites, Your ad preferences, and Your Off-Facebook Activity pages on Facebook? Have you ever browsed the Google Privacy Checkup and My Activity pages of your Google account? Have you ever visited the Privacy and safety and Your Twitter data pages of your Twitter account? Did you know that Google with the Google Assistant, Amazon with Alexa, and Microsoft with Cortana store a copy of every conversation you’ve ever had with your phone, laptop, smart speaker or other Internet-enabled device (including the ones they may have picked up on accidentally) on their servers and that you can listen to them and delete them? Did you know that Apple only stores transcripts of your Siri interactions and that you can delete those as well, if you want to?
- Checking your browser extensions permissions
Browser extensions can do a lot of things, beside being useful: They can have the ability to access your browsing history, replace content on the pages you visit, access the data you input into any web page (including sensitive data like financial data, usernames and passwords, and private messages), access and/or modify your bookmarks, etc. If you’re not okay with some of the permissions a given browser extension requires, consider removing it and maybe find a replacement. If an extension doesn’t come from a trusted publisher, it could cause damage.
- Quitting some apps and services by deleting the account and/or uninstalling the app
If you make this decision but want to keep you data remember that most services allow you to download a copy of your data.
When it comes to the disclosure of your location information keep in mind that there are different ways in which such data can be accessed and collected by third-parties:
- Apps are able to access and track your location using data from global navigation satellite systems such as GPS and Galileo. In most cases you’ll be able to control this by visiting your device’s privacy settings.
- Apps are also able to track your whereabouts using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Few OSes currently provide controls around this.
- Your IP address can be used by the websites, apps, and services you use to determine the country you’re accessing the Internet from. More on how you can control this in the VPN chapter.
- Mobile network operators are able to detect your location because they know to which of their cell sites you’re connected to, making location disclosure a matter of course that can only be avoided if you’re willing to disable all cellular connectivity via settings such as Airplane Mode.
Online tracking and advertising
Big tracking networks like the ones put in place by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and others are always trying to follow you around the web with the goal of collecting as much data about you and your behavior as possible, data they are then able to use to do things like targeted advertising.
Ads can be invasive, sometimes exploited for malicious purposes (like prompting you to install malware, or giving up personal information) and can negatively impact your browsing experience, your bandwidth usage, and your battery life.
Sites can even be hijacked to mine cryptocurrency without your consent, which can be a very lucrative business for malicious actors.
To minimize this kind of behavior, you can try out browser extensions such as uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, Ghostery, and DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials and consider switching to privacy-focused products and services such as DuckDuckGo (a search engine that doesn’t track users), OsmAnd (an offline maps and navigation app), and DeepL Translator (a less privacy-invasive machine translation service).
If you’re using the Firefox Browser you should also check out the Enhanced Tracking Protection feature (available across desktop, iOS, and Android) as well as additional tracking protection extensions like Facebook Container and Firefox Multi-Account Containers.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of websites are ad-supported, so you might want to consider whitelisting or financially supporting the ones you most rely upon and/or the ones you trust so that they can continue doing what they’re doing.
Cloud services can be amazing tools, but they can also bring some important security and privacy trade-offs with them.
Companies operating mainstream services such as Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, OneNote, Evernote, Google Docs, Microsoft Office, WeTransfer and so on cannot guarantee that their users will be the only ones able to access their own data. This is because (for various reasons) they’ve decided to maintain access to users’ data as well.
This can be fine in some scenarios, but there will probably be times when (maybe even at the cost of losing out in terms of functionality) you might actually want to have control over who has access to your data, and how your data is handled.
This is where end-to-end encrypted services like Sync for cloud storage, Standard Notes for note-taking, CryptPad for collaborative document editing, and Firefox Send or OnionShare for file sharing could come in handy. They all encrypt and decrypt your data locally, so as to provide a service in which you can be sure (to a reasonable degree) that only you and the people you might want to share your data with will be able to access such data.
Think about the Equifax disaster that exposed personal data such as Social Security Numbers and dates of birth of over 140 million US citizens, or the Yahoo! data breach that exposed personal info of all of Yahoo’s 3 billion registered accounts.
All of this compromised data will never go back under the control of the people who lost it, and in cases such as SSNs and dates of birth there’s not much one can do. Those are things that just cannot be changed.
In a world that’s increasingly reliant on digital means to collect, store, use, and share all sorts of data (including personal data and sensitive personal data), in a world in which personal information is frequently compromised in data breaches and/or voluntarily disclosed on social media or over other semi-public or unsecure channels (and yet still widely used to identify and authenticate people) malicious parties can do real damage.
A very useful tool both when it comes to security awareness and knowledge about data breaches is the Firefox Monitor service.
The easy to use website (which is based on Troy Hunt‘s Have I Been Pwned? project) lets you check if your data was ever part of a known data breach via a publicly searchable database, as well as add the email addresses you want to keep monitored (a free Firefox Account is required in this case) to be notified when new information about data breaches impacting your accounts surfaces.
One interesting Have I Been Pwned? feature (that Firefox Monitor currently lacks) is Pwned Passwords, a page where anyone can type their passwords and instantly know if they previously appeared in a known data breach. This is done without your passwords ever leaving your device or being disclosed to anyone by taking advantage of a mathematical property called k-anonymity.
A number of other companies have been incorporating Have I Been Pwned? features into their products and services as well. Two I would like to mention here are the 1Password password manager, that has done so via the Watchtower section of their apps, and the PassProtect browser extension.
Data protection and minimization
Try to be mindful about which data you digitize and where and how you store it, but also about which data you share about yourself and with whom, where, and how you share it.
This data can range from personal info such as your name and surname, date of birth, home address, and identification card number to sensitive information like health-related data, genetic data, and data that could be used to reveal your racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious and philosophical beliefs, sex life, and sexual orientation.
Keep in mind that you’re not probably dealing exclusively with your personal data, but with the personal data other people have shared, are sharing, and will share with you as well.
Personal info such as name, surname, and date of birth are still used in many cases as only info required to authenticate people (looking at you telecommunication companies…) and could be used to impersonate you and gain unauthorized access to all sorts of services you use. Moreover once such data becomes public there might not be a way for you to do much of anything about it. You may be able to change your passwords, but changing things such as your date of birth, your name and surname, or your home address is much, much less feasable (if not impossible).
When signing up to a service try to get a sense of how the company behind it will store your data and if they’ll do so in a matter that protects your security and respects your privacy. Try to also think about what data any given service needs versus the data it asks for, and try to find a way to only give up what’s strictly necessary.
Does that random online forum really needs your real name, date of birth and your main email address? Should you really trust that random shopping site with your credit card info, or should you maybe consider using a different payment method (like PayPal, if available) instead?
Always try to understand how much personal data you are willing to share with third-parties. If you’re not comfortable with the amount of information a given service is asking you to provide, consider not using it.
Try to encrypt as much of your data as possible (more on this in the Device encryption, Secure communication, HTTPS, DNS over HTTPS, Web browser, Cloud services, and VPN chapters) while at the same time deleting the data you don’t need or use anymore. This could mean deleting old social media posts that don’t reflect you anymore, pictures and videos in shared folders you don’t need, accounts you never or only rarely use (the Just Delete Me website can help you here), as well as old files that are just taking up valuable space. It could also mean completely wiping old devices such as unused phones, laptops, tablets, Hard Disk Drives, USB flash drives, SD cards, etc.
Keep in mind that aside from employing a trusted disk wiping tool, the best option to wipe devices like old Hard Disk Drives is usually that of physically destroying them.
As the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre wrote soon after news hit of a previously undisclosed Google+ bug that could’ve potentially be exploited to access people’s private information:
“For any user of social media, this breach is a reminder that social media applications that you no longer use may still contain your data and this could potentially be leaked. It is recommended that any active or inactive users of social media platforms review their data held by such platforms to limit any future exposure to breaches. They should also review their privacy settings with companies, including Google, which have introduced further privacy checks with the introduction of the GDPR act.”
Taking good care of your data also means deciding what will happen to your accounts and the data they hold after your death. Would you prefer your data be deleted? Would you prefer to designate a person (or a group of people) that will be in charge of handling your data for you? A digital death plan is probably not something people generally think about, but it’s also the only way you’ll be able to retain some control over your data once you’re not around anymore.
Here’s some help navigating the topic, if you need it: Death Online: Planning your digital afterlife (The Verge)
If you need to protect yourself from online harassment, then you might want to check out the Speak Up & Stay Safe(r) guide from Jaclyn Friedman, Anita Sarkeesian, and Renee Bracey Sherman.
A good step you can take to try and prevent losing your data if your phone, laptop, external storage device, or any other device is lost, stolen, or stops working for any reason is backups.
Devices like the iPhone, the iPad, any Mac computer, and the various Android phones and tablets available on the market usually offer some sort of cloud backup feature. This makes maintaining a copy of your device data always at the ready very easy, but it also usually means giving up control of that data to the extent that it will no longer be accessible to you exclusively, but also (at least in part) to the company operating the cloud service as well.
Apple doesn’t currently provide the option to protect your iCloud backups with end-to-end encryption and unfortunately it’s unlikely this is going to change soon. What it does provide is the option to save encrypted iPhone and iPad backups to your computer using iTunes or the Finder and the option to save encrypted Mac backups to an external storage device using Time Machine. Consider sticking with local backups (as opposed to iCloud backups) if you own one or more Apple devices.
Google does seem to be using some form of end-to-end encryption to protect your data if you decide to back your Android device up to Google’s cloud, but it’s not very transparent about exactly which data is protected. The feature should be available on devices running Android 9 or later where a screen lock PIN, pattern, or password is enabled. A first-party option to backup an Android device to a computer or an external storage device doesn’t seem to be available at this time.
When it comes to Windows devices Microsoft doesn’t offer a comprehensive cloud backup feature like Apple and Google do (just a non end-to-end encrypted sync settings option) and only offers a pretty limited local backup option called File History.
People looking to create a backup of the data stored on their Windows device or on any external storage device (such as an Hard Disk Drive, SD card, USB drive, etc.) should take a look at backup and encryption tools such as SyncBack and VeraCrypt (more on VeraCrypt in the Device encryption chapter) for local backups and at end-to-end encrypted cloud storage providers such as Sync for cloud backups.
There is always the option of choosing a service that doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption if your data is already encrypted with tools such as VeraCrypt or Cryptomator, or if no personal data is involved (meaning the disclosure of such data to third-parties wouldn’t be a cause of concern for you or other people).
While choosing the option (or combination of options) that best fits your needs take into account the sensitivity of the data in question, as well as (in the case of non-end-to-end encrypted providers) the trust you’re willing to place in the company operating the service.
Contemporary hacking usually involves the unwitting participation of the people or organizations being hacked. This is because it is way easier (and cheaper) for and attacker to trick someone by placing a phone call or sending a malicious link or attachment and have the victim do the work for them, than having to make their way through technical safeguards themselves (which could be feasible too, just generally more expensive and time-consuming).
Even though popular email services do a decent job at filtering out spam messages from your inbox, popular web browsers have the capability of warning you when you’re about to visit a potentially malicious webpage, operating systems have both proactive and reactive capabilities in place to protect users from malicious files, and various other software products and services come with some level of protection enabled by default, keep in mind that such safeguards will not protect you against everything, and (even more crucially) will not always protect you against yourself.
- Things that are too good to be true
Such communications may involve giveaways, large sums of money, or something along those lines.
- Messages that convey a sense of urgency and ask you to act promptly
Such messages may involve communications about your accounts being compromised, and may ask you to put your info into a page that looks just like the original one but in fact is not.
- Email addresses that don’t look quite right
This may involve very long, apparently random email addresses as well as addresses similar to ones you trust but different in some little, less apparent way.
- Messages from and about services you don’t use
Such as an email about a bank account from a bank you don’t bank with, or from a service you never signed up for, or about a package you never ordered.
- Suspicious links
Such as strange-looking links or shortened links (like bit.ly’s) delivered to you via email, instant messaging, SMS or found on social media.
- Unknown or suspicious files
Like an .exe or PDF file you downloaded from a random or unsecured website rather than from a trusted HTTPS website, or a similar file that was sent to you via email, instant messaging, or SMS.
- Unknown or suspicious devices
This could involve inputting personal data on devices that you do not have direct control over (like a computer at the library or even a friend’s computer) or plugging unknown devices (like USB flash drives or Hard Disk Drives that belong to other people or that you have found somewhere) to your laptop or other trusted device.
- Suspicious phone calls
Such phone calls could involve someone asking you to provide weirdly personal information after having proactively called you claiming to be from Microsoft’s, Apple’s, or another company’s customer service or tech support team.
You can test your phish spotting skills using Jigsaw’s cleverly designed Can you spot when you’re being phished? quiz. You can also use tools such as CheckShortURL to check where shortened URLs lead to before actually opening them in your browser.
When using anti-malware software (like anti-virus software) take into account the fact that for it to work it has to have deep access to a system. Vulnerabilities in such software would therefore greatly increase the surface for potential attacks.
This is not to say that you should downright avoid it, instead that you should be aware of the fact that poorly developed anti-malware software (particularly if provided by a third-party, which usually needs to hack its way into a system in order to make its products work) could add serious vulnerabilities to a system, instead of helping securing it.
Microsoft’s Windows 10 (for instance) comes with the Windows Security app as part of the operating system. Consider sticking with it.
Here are some more information on the topic:
- Should users disable Windows Defender on Windows 10? (Security Now)
- Steve Gibson’s position on anti-virus software (Security Now)
- Disable Your Antivirus Software Except Microsoft’s (Robert O’Callahan)
- A Followup About AV Test Reports (Robert O’Callahan)
- Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte talk about AV software (Security Now)
- Next-gen security with Windows Defender Antivirus (Microsoft)
Whatever you choose to do, try to also be careful and mindful about what you’re doing with your devices and in which context you’re doing it. Anti-malware software can indeed help you, but it can’t and it shouldn’t be relied upon if you ignore common sense security practices.
Also, just in case you were wondering: Yes! Everybody has software vulnerabilities. And, yes! There is malware for everybody. No system is immune and there is no such thing as a hack-proof or a 100% secure system. That is where regular an timely updates come into play.
This will not make you surveillance-proof, and there’s probably plenty of other cameras around you at all times over which you have less or no control over, not to mention microphones (which are much more difficult to cover or disable)… But hey! At least you’re doing something, and while you’re hopefully feeling good about it, you’re also subtly telling other people that you do care about security and privacy (which is important, and cool).
A Virtual Private Network is a tool used by different people in different parts of the world to do different things. Someone could be using a trusted VPN (the keyword here being “trusted”) to access geo-blocked content, prevent their ISP from having access to (and maybe making money off of) their Internet activity, or to simply browse securely and privately on public Wi-Fi; while someone else could be using one to protect themselves from mass surveillance and mandatory data retention laws or maybe even get around pervasive state censorship and fully exercise their human rights.
Using a VPN means all your Internet traffic is sent to one of your VPN’s servers (VPNs usually have hundreds or even thousands of servers spread across the world) via an encrypted tunnel, and it then goes out to the Internet from there. This has two main positive implications:
- Traffic encryption
Anyone positioned between you and the VPN’s servers (it being a bad actor, an unregulated ISP, or an intelligence agency) will only be able to see that you’re connected to a VPN, preventing them from having any kind of access to your Internet activity.
- IP address obfuscation
Anything you connect to on the Internet will only see the IP address of your VPN’s server, effectively masking your devices’ IP addresses. This means that your traffic will look to the services you’re using as if it was coming from the VPN’s servers instead of your actual physical location.
Keep in mind: A VPN only protects the connection between you and the services you’re using, it doesn’t prevent you from visiting malicious websites or from voluntarily or involuntarily disclosing personal information to the services you use. Because your data is encrypted locally on your devices and is then decrypted once it reaches your VPN’s servers, using a VPN also means shifting trust from your ISP to the VPN provider. You’ll want to find a VPN that you can really trust.
Free VPNs are usually not recommended as many of them profit off of selling the very same data customers wanted them to protect.
A VPN provider I feel comfortable mentioning here is ProtonVPN (built by the same folks behind ProtonMail). ProtonVPN uses the well-regarded OpenVPN protocol, has some very interesting security features, and has recently received a pretty strong endorsement from Mozilla. Here’s VPNpro’s review of their product: ProtonVPN Review
If what you’re looking for is an anonymity tool, then you should probably give the Tor Browser a try instead.
Personal security assessment
A good way to go about implementing the chapters of this list is defining your threat model:
- What are you trying to protect?
What is it you consider personal/sensitive enough that you’re willing to take extra steps in order to avoid it falling into the wrong hands, or going public?
- From whom are you trying to protect it from?
Are you worried about police surveillance, corporate surveillance, surveillance from your parents, threats from people with physical access to your devices and systems such as spouses, roommates, and employers, or what you’re interested about is adopting general security measures to avoid losing your information to hackers?
- If that person or entity were to come after what you’re trying to protect, how would they do it?
Would they just need to grab your device? Would they need to guess a PIN? Would they need to gain remote access to your devices using malware? Would they need to guess the password you keep reusing? Would they be willing to force you into unlocking your data for them?
- If they were to succeed, how bad would the consequences be?
What could be the worst case scenario? How would you handle such a situation, if you were confronted with it?
- How likely is it that someone will come after what you’re trying to protect?
How valuable do you think your information is for the person or entity in question?
- What resources such as time (and maybe money) are you willing to invest to secure what you’re trying to protect?
While going through these questions keep in mind that figuring out who and what you trust, as well as realizing the fact that if there is someone targeting you their capabilities will likely grow over time can be very important.
Here’s a good resource from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that dives a little deeper into the topic: Your Security Plan (EFF).
Bring other people in
What we’ve seen so far are some of the most important personal actions anyone can take to better protect their data and the data other people might be sharing with them.
But here’s the thing: Security and privacy are only as strong as their weakest link, and can therefore only be really tackled if you approach them as a team sport.
Once you start thinking about data protection as both a journey you and the people in your life can embark on together and a public good, ask yourself: Do these people (the ones I share personal, private, and/or sensitive information with) protect their data and the data I share with them as well? Would it make sense for me to suggest, ask, or even demand they follow good practices similar to the ones highlighted on this project?
Personal security and privacy are about us, both as individuals and as a society. They are something we should think and talk about because (whether we realize it or not) they are at the heart of everything we do online and off, and as such they touch our lives (directly or otherwise) every single day.
As Edward Snowden once said:
“One of the most important things I think we all have a duty collectively in society to think about is when we’re directed to think a certain way and accept a certain argument reflexively without actually tackling it.
The common argument we have — if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear — the origins of that are literally Nazi propaganda. This is not to equate the actions of our current government to the Nazis, but that is the literal origin of that quote. It’s from the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.
So when we hear modern politicians, modern people repeating that reflexively without confronting its origins, what it really stands for, I think that’s harmful.
And if we actually think about it, it doesn’t make sense. Because privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are. That’s what you believe in. Privacy is the right to a self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms. For them to understand what you’re trying to be and to protect for yourself the parts of you you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with.
If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes, we’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space, a space within yourself, your mind, your community, your friends, your family, to decide what it is you actually want to say.
Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that much if you can’t figure out what you actually believe without being influenced by the criticisms of outside direction and peer pressure. And it goes on and on.
Privacy is baked into our language, our core concepts of government and self in every way. It’s why we call it ‘private property.’ Without privacy you don’t have anything for yourself.
So when people say that to me I say back, arguing that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Go ahead. Take care 🌱