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Three steps towards more privacy on the Net

Initially, I wanted to summarize my findings concerning Tor with Firefox on Android. Then, I decided to start with an explanation why I care about Tor at all. The summary, that I had in mind initially, then follows in a subsequent post.

I belong to a species that appears to be on the verge of extinction. My species believes in the value of privacy, also on the Net. We did not yet despair or resign in view of mass surveillance and ubiquitous, surreptitious, nontransparent data brokering. Instead, we made a deliberate decision to resist.

People around us seem to be indifferent to mass surveillance and data brokerage. Recent empirical research indicates that they resign. In consequence, they submit to the destruction of our (their’s and, what they don’t realize, also mine) privacy. I may be an optimist in believing that my species can spread by the proliferation of simple ideas. This is an infection attempt.

Step 1. Opt-out of the cloud and piracy policies.

In this post, I use the term “cloud” as placeholder for convenient, centralized services provided by data brokers from remote data centers. Such services are available for calendar synchronization, file sharing, e-mail and messaging, and I recommend to avoid those services that gain access to “your” data, turn it into their data, generously providing access rights also to you (next to their business partners as well as intelligence agencies and other criminals with access to their infrastructure).

My main advice is simple, if you are interested in privacy: Opt out of the cloud. Do not entrust your private data (e-mails, messages, photos, calendar events, browser history) to untrustworthy parties with incomprehensible terms of service and “privacy” policies. The typical goal of a “privacy” policy is to make you renounce your right to privacy and to allow companies the collection and sale of data treasures based on your data. Thus, you should really think of a “piracy policy” whenever you agree to those terms. (By the way, in German, I prefer “Datenschatzbedingungen” to “Datenschutzbedingungen” towards the same end.)

Opting out of the cloud may be inconvenient, but is necessary and possible. Building on a metaphor that I borrow from Eben Moglen, privacy is an ecological phenomenon. All of us can work jointly towards the improvement of our privacy, or we can pollute our environment, pretending that we don’t know better or that each individual has none or little influence anyways.

While your influence may be small, you are free to choose. You may choose to send e-mails via some data broker. If you make that choice, then you force your friends to send replies intended for your eyes to your data broker, reducing their privacy. Alternatively, you may choose some local, more trustworthy provider. Most likely, good alternatives are available in your country; there certainly are some in Germany such as Mailbox.org and Posteo (both were tested positively in February 2015 by Stiftung Warentest; in addition, I’m paying 1€ per month for an account at the former). Messaging is just the same. You are free to contribute to a world-wide, centralized communication monopoly, sustaining the opposite of private communication, or to choose tools and services that allow direct communication with your friends, without data brokers in between. (Or you could use e-mail instead.) Besides, you are free to use alternative search engines such as Startpage (which shows Google results in a privacy friendly manner) or meta search engines such as MetaGer or ixquick.

Step 2. Encrypt your communication.

I don’t think that there is a reason to send unencrypted communication through the Net. Clearly, encryption hinders mass surveillance and data brokering. Learn about e-mail self-defense. Learn about off-the-record (OTR) communication (sample tools at PRISM Break).

Step 3. Anonymize your surfing behavior.

I recommend Tor for anonymized Web surfing to resist mass surveillance by intelligence agencies as well as profiling by data brokers. Mass surveillance and profiling are based on bulk data collection, where it’s easy to see who communicates where and when with whom, potentially about what. It’s probably safe to say that with Tor it is not “easy” any more to see who communicates where and when with whom. Tor users do not offer this information voluntarily, they resist actively.

On desktop PCs, you can just use the Tor Browser, which includes the Tor software itself and a modified version of the Firefox browser, specifically designed to protect your privacy, in particular in view of basic and sophisticated identification techniques (such as cookies and various forms of fingerprinting).

On Android, Tor Browser does not exist, and alternatives need to be configured carefully, which is the topic for the next post.

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