A Libertarian Guide to Internet Privacy

Katja Zandkuijl,  Privacy.

Katja Zandkuijl, Privacy.

One thing that is always on my mind as a libertarian is Privacy. Our ancestors valued privacy much more than we do today, because privacy in the past was physical, visible and consequently tangible. Having your privacy violated in the past meant someone going through your things, following you around or simply constantly controlling and asking what you’re doing. Your physical freedom was at stake.

The idea we have today of privacy is much broader, less invasive, but not one bit less important and meaningful than it was before. The fact is we are now even more monitored, controlled, followed and spied than ever before, sometime by harmless things such online ads, but every now and then, by malicious people who are trying to fool, take advantage or steal from us, and that is when we finally notice how vulnerable we are online. Total Internet privacy is impossible, and anyone who claims to have it is lying. But anyone can increase their Internet privacy by adjusting their online behavior, because the power to be more private and decide what we share online is in our hands.

First, it is important to say that, not everyone needs the same level of Internet privacy. The way I use my internet connection may differ from yours, and where I usually connect can also change how likely I am to treats. You don’t have to use Tor all the time (which will slow your Internet) or communicate only through Signal encrypted messenger (which is useless unless your contacts are using it too). While such technologies provide a higher level of privacy, they may not be necessary for you and the kind of personal threat you are exposed to. In other words, you probably don’t need to take the same privacy precautions as a Turkish dissident, a Venezuelan protester or an NSA whistleblower.

Internet privacy is important for everyone!

If you have a smartphone, which almost everybody in the world does nowadays, even your grandmother, then privacy issues directly impact you. Without Internet privacy someone can steal your credit card or even your identity, potentially causing problems for your credit score or at the very least inconveniencing you while a replacement card is shipped. Internet privacy keeps hackers and criminals from infiltrating your online accounts and spying on your activity while using public WiFi.

On the other hand, as both citizens and users of the Internet, we all have a stake in the quality of our society. Privacy is a fundamental human right and a prerequisite for democracy. For authoritarian governments and profit-seeking companies alike, invasions of privacy are a useful means of control. If you value your freedom, then Internet privacy should matter to you.

Here are a few tips to keep improve your privacy:

1. Limit the information you share publicly

A lot of sensitive information about you is publicly available on the Internet. Some of it is a matter of public record, like court records, addresses, and voter registration. But much of it we put on the Internet voluntarily, usually via social media: photos (often location tagged), family members’ names, work history, and a variety of clues about our daily lives. In the end, without even knowing, we are putting ourselves voluntarily in danger.

Hackers can use these clues for social engineering and to answer security questions. Photos of you on social media can even be used to create deepfake videos of you. Almost all online services and Internet-connected devices have privacy settings you can update to restrict the amount of information collected and/or posted publicly online.

2. Limit the information you share privately

Online service providers can be vulnerable to data breaches, which can instantly compromise your privacy, sometimes in embarrassing ways. Even large services like Google or Facebook are not immune to data breaches. You can mitigate the privacy threat of data breaches by limiting the information you share with these services. For instance, you can use Google Chrome or Google Maps without logging into your account, or simply switching to a more privacy-friendly browser like Firefox.

If the services themselves (and their third-party partners) are overly risky for the type of life you live on, then you can switch to privacy-focused services that do not collect user data (and therefore cannot share it with third parties). I for example use ProtonMail, an e-mail account that i anonymous (not linked to your real life identity), and only collect as little user information as possible. Unlike other email service providers (like Gmail) the ProtonMail service also have no ability to read your inbox due to end-to-end encryption. When you use the free version of Gmail for example, the Google servers scan all your emails and accounts in order to offer you better suited advertising online. The same thing happens while using Facebook Messenger.

3. Strengthen your account security

Your password is your first line of defense. Make sure you use strong, unique passwords. A password manager can help you generate and store them so that you don’t have to write them down.

Your second line of defense is two-factor authentication (2FA). This is a way to secure your account with a second piece of information, usually something you have with you on your person, like a code created on an authenticator app or fob.

Avoid using public computers to access your accounts because these can be compromised by keyloggers. And if you absolutely must use a public computer, be sure to log out of your accounts.

4. Protect your devices

Most threat models should include the possibility of your device getting stolen or lost. So it’s important to also have strong passwords protecting your devices. There are apps that allow you to wipe, locate, and potentially identify the thief if your device is stolen.

Another important part of protecting your device is maintaining its software. You can help prevent attackers from installing malware on your device by keeping your apps and operating systems up to date. Software updates often include security patches for recently discovered vulnerabilities. You can also use anti-virus software.

If your device somehow is compromised with spyware, a low-tech privacy solution, ironically popularized by Mark Zuckerberg, is to cover your webcam with a piece of opaque tape

5. Practice email safety

Email is one of the easiest ways for hackers to get into your computer. So it’s important to be alert for phishing attacks, in which the attacker tries to trick you into clicking on a link, downloading an attachment, or giving up sensitive information (such as entering your username and password into a spoofed webpage).

6. Use encryption as much as possible

Encryption is the process of converting readable information into an unreadable string of characters. Without encryption, anyone monitoring the Internet could see the information being transmitted, from credit cards to chat messages. The vast majority of online services use some form of encryption to protect the data travelling to and from their servers. But only a few tech companies encrypt your information in such a way that even the company cannot decrypt it. This kind of encryption is called end-to-end encryption(E2EE). Whenever possible you should use services that offer E2EE because your privacy is protected by default.

Often, there is an E2EE alternative to less private services. For example, ProtonMail is a private alternative to Gmail. Instead of Google Drive, which can access your files, you could use TresoritDuckDuckGo is a private alternative to Google Search, and Brave is one example of an Internet browser that doesn’t track your browsing activity. For notes, Standard Notes is one E2EE option.

For instant messaging, you have a number of options. WhatsApp is one of the most popular chat apps, and it features E2EE. But Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) can see who you communicate with and when, and there may even be ways for Facebook to gain access to your messages if it wanted to. Facebook Messenger is not E2EE by default. WeChat offers no E2EE. For better chat security and privacy, I recommend using Wire or Signal.

For web services that are not E2EE, you should at least ensure that your Internet connection is encrypted from your device to the company’s servers. You can check that this is the case by making sure the URL of the website begins with “https”. There’s a browser plugin called HTTPS Everywhere to help you do this automatically.

7. Use a virtual private network (VPN)

A VPN encrypts your Internet connection from your device to the server owned by your VPN service provider. Using a VPN can help keep your web traffic safe from anyone monitoring the network at the local level: hackers, your Internet service provider, and surveillance agencies. A VPN will also mask your true location and IP address, allowing you to browse more privately and access geo-restricted content.

A VPN will not, however, protect your web traffic against the VPN provider. That’s why it’s important to choose a VPN service you trust that does not keep logs of your activity.

8. Use Tor

Lastly, if your lifestyle requires a very high level of Internet privacy (maybe you’re a spy), you should connect to the Internet through Tor. Tor is a technology maintained by the nonprofit Tor Project, which allows you to use the Internet anonymously. It works by bouncing your connection through multiple layers of encryption, both protecting your data and concealing its origin. Tor also allows you to access blocked websites (such as those offering E2EE services) via the dark web. However, the downside of Tor is that it is generally significantly slower compared to using a VPN.

Lastly, I want to say that just because you want privacy, it does not mean you have something to hide. Privacy, as mentioned before, is not only good for building stronger democracies but a fundamental right of the individual in our society. Creating a more private Internet is possible, but it will require a major shift in our culture and from the Internet’s current ad-based business model.

Hope you can use some of the tips here to improve you internet security against hackers and criminals and to regain your privacy. Mostly of the information was gathered in my favorite email provider ProtonMail. If you don’t have an account, go check them out, it’s free.

As always, be kind.

- F.