Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower once said: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
His words are more pertinent than ever in today’s ultra-connected surveillance society. In my previous article, I looked at three simple steps we can take to reduce the likelihood that our smartphones – largely unbeknownst to us – are sending our personal information to third parties.
Those are good first steps but they are just that – the first few steps. To ensure that most, if not all, aspects of our online privacy are guarded, we need to also do these things:
Switch from WhatsApp to Signal
There probably isn’t an app that we use more on our smartphones today than WhatsApp. With more than two billion users worldwide, it’s become near-ubiquitous and all-pervasive.
Two other uber-popular chat apps, Facebook Messenger and WeChat aren’t slouches either, accounting for around 1.3 and 1.2 billion users respectively worldwide. However, their prevalence is no indication of their commitment to user privacy – in fact it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that they’re inversely correlated.
One of the best things we can do to ensure that their parent companies – Facebook and Tencent – don’t have access to inordinate amounts of our personal data is ditching their products for Signal, a relatively new chat app that’s recently seen an influx of privacy-concerned users.
Its high-profile advocates include Edward Snowden and tech moguls Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey. It’s also gotten the nod from a plethora of security experts, and for good reason. The table below details some key differences between Signal and WhatsApp:
Another app that’s vying to be a viable alternative to WhatsApp is Telegram. In terms of privacy and security, it falls somewhere in the middle – not as good as Signal but not as data-hungry as WhatsApp.
Switch from Google to DuckDuckGo
Besides Facebook, another company that suffers the ire of privacy conscious consumers is Google. It’s immediately apparent why – just like Facebook, Google’s core product is free. And since it’s free, the way they rake in the money is by harvesting as much user data as they legally can so that they can flood us with a barrage of targeted ads for which advertisers pay boatloads of cash.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Google isn’t the only game in town and when it comes to privacy, it’s arguably the worst game in town. One of the best is DuckDuckGo which has both a smartphone browser app – which can be downloaded via the Apple App Store and Google Play – and a search engine.
Its name is playful and might even sound kiddish but its privacy features are a force to be reckoned with. They are detailed and contrasted with Google’s offering here:
Switch from Gmail to Protonmail
If we have a Gmail account, Google has the ability to read our emails. (Ever wondered how Google is able to show you flight notifications without you even asking for it?) In addition, Gmail is owned by Google so whatever privacy and security issues are inherent in Google would also plague Gmail.
To safeguard against this, using a secure and privacy-focused email service like ProtonMail is a good idea. Its features include but are not limited to:
- All emails are end-to-end encrypted, so only the sender and receiver can read their contents. This even includes the ability to send encrypted emails to non-ProtonMail users;
- Is based in Switzerland, which is famous for having some of the strictest privacy laws on the planet;
- Stores data in secure data centres in Switzerland, with its main data centre being inside a nuclear bunker;
- Has two-factor authentication so even if someone gets a hold of our password, they won’t be able to access our account unless they also have our smartphone;
- Doesn’t require personal data to create an account; and
- Doesn’t track IP addresses, so it wouldn’t know where or which device our emails are sent from.
Use a VPN
When it comes to safeguarding our online privacy, very few tools are as effective as using a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs protect our privacy and security by encrypting our internet traffic, hence hiding our online identity. It does this by masking our IP address with one provided by the VPN service.
This means that whatever we do while having a secure VPN connection can’t be monitored by the government or third parties who might be out to do no good. However, Google and Facebook can still track our activities if we are logged into their services. So, it’s important to log out of these accounts when using a VPN to ensure online anonymity.
A VPN can come in especially handy when using a public wifi network such as the one at a coffee shop or a college campus – which are notorious for security breaches. However, one downside of using a VPN is it slows down your connection. But as long as you have a strong internet connection, this is only a minor annoyance.
Another minor annoyance is the fact that the best VPN providers charge a monthly subscription fee. There are some free VPNs around but they’re not nearly as good as the paid ones. But it’s a small price to pay to maintain our online privacy and security.
Use an iPhone
This is probably the most controversial suggestion of the lot but Apple has recently been doubling down on its smartphone privacy and security – something that doesn’t bode well for Facebook and Google which rely on lax privacy settings to be able to harvest our data.
It makes sense why. Since Android – the staple operating system for most non-Apple smartphones – is Google-owned, it isn’t in its best interest to tighten its privacy and security features.
In addition, popular Chinese Android smartphone makers such as Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi have to play by the Chinese government’s rulebook, which means that it probably has a backdoor to these smartphones and hence access to the personal information of hundreds of millions of its users.
In contrast, American companies have the power to refuse to cooperate with the American government – as Apple had demonstrated when it refused to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter even at the behest of the FBI. However, Chinese companies just don’t have that option.
Here are some of the iPhone operating system’s (iOS 14) key privacy features:
- iOS is a closed system so its source code is a secret to outsiders, making it difficult for hackers to infiltrate it. This is unlike Android’s open-source code in which its vulnerabilities can be found and exploited;
- A fantastic new privacy feature in iOS 14 is the addition of two dots – one green and another yellow – that light up when an app uses the phone’s camera or microphone. This is great for allaying the fears of many who suspect that their smartphones are snooping on them;
- Enables users to allow certain apps (such as Instagram and Canva) access to only the selected photos and videos, instead of giving them access to the entire photo and video library;
- Allows users to provide their approximate location to apps that require it, instead of giving them their pinpoint location; and
- Enables users to allow or deny apps the permission to track them across apps and websites. This is a huge deal as this enables people to easily opt out of being tracked online – something that most would do if the option was presented to them.
Finally, even though these steps aren’t foolproof, they will certainly ensure that we will be leaps and bounds more secure than we are currently. And more importantly, they’ll ensure that no one company or entity has too much of our personal information.
In the world of the future, being able to protect our privacy and security is going to be a superpower. It’s best we start building on it right now.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected].
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.