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These days, not only is technology getting confusing, but it’s also getting downright intimidating. When you consider the fact that these massive tech giants, such as Google, Comcast and Verizon, are collecting massive amounts of data on we, the average-Joes of America, the technological landscape can seem more oppressive than empowering.
With that said, there seems to be no shortage of these “trusted third parties,” sharing our information with the NSA. Now I’m not saying that I plan on pulling a “Snowden-gag,” but let’s just say that I’m still not exactly comfortable with the idea of having all of my personal information flying around out there in the cyberwind. Fourth Amendment aside, I’m also just not fond of being watched…
And I’m sure that many of you will agree with me on this point, but I believe it’s just bad manners to stare at strangers without their consent. So, here are three good ways to protect your online anonymity, so that you don’t have to feel like some unionized NSA employee isn’t sitting behind some computer screen and staring at your info for no apparent (or tyrannically nefarious) reason.
No. 3: Use Your Good Ol’ Fashioned Horse Sense
The saying “common sense isn’t common” is especially true when it comes to consumer tech, because people use this tech expressly for convenience and increased capabilities. With that said, convenience and increased capabilities are usually going to require your willingness to divulge even more of your data with every little upgrade.
For instance, there really isn’t a way to use wearable tech like Google Glass and smart watches that record your vital signs and sleep cycles while maintaining any expectation of privacy or anonymity. Let’s face it: If you’re at odds with Uncle Sam for adding facial recognition software and fingerprinting to your state’s DMV database, but at the same time you’re OK with the facial recognition capability on your shiny new LG G3, then the point becomes moot. Now that 2015 is ushering in the new age of the “web (internet) of things,” then that means you’ve got to cut out the things in order to avoid being trapped in the web. It just makes the spider’s life just that much more difficult when its meal isn’t dangling in front of him.
So if you’re a privacy-conscious individual, or you want to maintain a technological off-grid-type lifestyle, then you’re probably going to have to part ways with Facebook. Anytime your real identity is linked with a tech device, then you’re basically asking for attention from your friendly neighborhood spider.
Of course, there are times when we’ll need to interact with the info-guzzlers, so it helps to know how to do this without divulging our sensitive information in the process. I’m talking about compartmentalizing your info, designating certain devices/settings for certain tasks. So, the spider might determine that a certain Facebook profile is into survival and prepping, but it doesn’t know how the user of said Facebook profile is purchasing her preps. Why? Because she uses a different device for that (including a different location/IP address).
That there makes for one confused spider.
No. 2: Cookies, Flash and the Opt-Out
Essentially, in order for a company successfully to track you and your device, it must place markers in your browser — or just downright hack your computer’s hard drive in a “legal” way. The two most-used and basic ways they do this are…
Whether it’s rumored that your particular browser doesn’t track you or not, it’s easy enough to remove all doubt when it comes to cookies. These (unfortunately) have nothing to do with chocolate chips and have everything to do with loading data onto your device, which talks to the tracker’s servers and provides them information about your browser’s history. For instance, that’s how random websites all seem to know that you purchased a Vortex optic last Thursday for your Remington 700, because they’ve all been trying to sell you on a rifle bipod since then. Coincidence? No.
When it comes to Flash, this is something that you’re going to have to disable, using add-ons for your browser, such as NoScript. What this add-on does is blocks Flash, which in turn, blocks its ability to upload a “script” onto your computer or mobile device. Also, since advertisements seem to do this on an annoyingly regular basis — and since nobody likes ads anyway — I strongly recommend using Adblock Plus. Trust me, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Overall, it’s basically impossible to opt-out of every attempt for something online to track you, especially if you’re using anything from Google or Apple. However, they do offer opt-out options, such as the DoubleClick opt-out, which basically places a patch over a raging information leak. No, it’s not perfect, but it certainly helps.
No. 1: Learn Linux Basics (MAC and Tor)
Now, if you’re looking for some serious anonymity and protection from prying eyes, then we’re going to need to get fairly technical. No. 2 was all about playing defense and trying to maintain privacy, but this method is basically the active approach to achieving relatively strong anonymity. Also, this is where it’s important to understand that privacy and anonymity are two different things.
First, privacy is basically no more than surfing the web and using online services in your own name — but playing on somebody else’s terms and trusting their word that you’re not being tracked.
Anonymity, however, is the act of taking your privacy into your own hands. Rather than politely asking others not to look at you, you’re essentially putting on a mask, and nobody can identify you, whether they want to or not.
I believe that the best way to buck anything trying to track your hardware is to learn how to use Linux-based operating system distributions (or distros), such as…
- Ubuntu [user-friendly]
- Debian [more stable]
- Tails [developed purely for anonymity-purposes … and also quite user friendly]
The reason for this is because you are booting an entirely different operating system from your existing computer or Android phone, which means that all of your original settings that have been leaving digital fingerprints all over the web are pretty much altered to Linux “factory settings.” Oh, by the way, just about anything Linux is open-source (this is, free).
Now, I say “pretty much,” because you will have two other “markers” that you’ll need to deal with. This is very easy to do, using Linux command-line programs, such as macchanger. The issue is that you’ll want to change, or “spoof,” your current MAC (media access control) address, which is essentially your device’s specified key to accessing the Internet. MAC addresses are often registered to match serial numbers, so if that device (or Wi-Fi card) was purchased or acquired in such a way that could connect the dots to you … then you’ve been painted.
Also, in most cases, Linux operating systems tend to have a fraction of the privacy problems that most other operating systems do (Windows, I’m looking at you), because it’s just A LOT harder to load Flash and unwanted scripts onto an OS as security-conscious and rarely used as a Linux distro.
Speaking of this, I’ve missed a few talking points…
If One Were So Inclined
So, what’s the other way that you can be tracked online? It’s your most obvious trail marker of them all: your IP (Internet Protocol) address. However, do you remember my mentioning of Mr. Snowden? Well, the humanitarian traitor/hero actually leaked information about a specific web browser, which can really do a good job at obliterating even the NSA’s ability to discover who you are and where you’ve logged on.
It’s called Tor, and though it’s had its hiccups in the past, I believe that this browser can still be a useful tool, especially if you’re not a super high-priority agency target, and are basically just trying to make sure that Starbucks isn’t extracting your web whereabouts (because they can’t use end-to-end correlation attacks). What it does is sends your IP address through a fog, and when inside that fog, Tor bounces your signal from node-to-node around the world.
And when you arrive at your intended web destination, then nobody can recognize you. You look like some guy signing on from Poland, but really, you’re a lady from Portland.
However, if you’re looking for a way to maintain almost complete anonymity, even down to leaving no footprints on your own hard drive, then boot the Tails (Linux distro) operating system from a thumb drive or live DVD on your computer. Not only does Tails do everything from eliminating scripts, cookies and implements the use of I2P and Tor, but it’s also going to make your computer “forget” everything you did on Tails when you were using it.
Tails can do this, because it’s designed to run only from your computer’s RAM (and not use your hard drive storage). If you want to save anything from your Tails session on your computer, then the operating system will ask explicitly beforehand. And that’s where Tails got its name…
- Amnesic …noun: forgetfulness; loss of long-term memory.
- Incognito …adjective & adverb: (of a person) having one’s true identity concealed.
It’s made by the same folks that made the Tor browser, so you can be fairly certain about the privacy/anonymity consciousness of this kind of operating system. So, you could use Tails for basically the highest level of anonymity possible for those of us who aren’t professional hackers.
What technical advice would you add? Do you believe you truly can “surf” anonymously? Share your tips in the section below: