How to avoid online surveillance -- the essential guide

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It would appear that mass surveillance of the Internet is here to stay. We can rage against the machine, but ultimately we're powerless to stop the likes of the NSA and GCHQ prying into whatever they want to pry into. More and more people are turning to the dark web to help cover their tracks, but even the supposedly anonymous haven of Tor can be cracked for a price.

Last week in the UK, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill was published outlining proposals for ISPs to retain user's browsing histories for a full year. Governments want to weaken encryption. The FCC ruled that Do Not Track requests are essentially meaningless. The NSA finds and takes advantage of vulnerabilities. It's little wonder that privacy groups are up in arms -- the erosion of online rights continues with terrifying speed. But all is not lost. There are still things you can do to help maintain your privacy. If you're concerned, here's what you can do.

There's no need to completely disconnect from the internet -- although this is the only sure fire way of staying off the radar -- but you will certainly have to change a few of your online habits. Online surveillance and monitoring of web habits is really something that should concern everyone, but it is the more liberal-minded and left-thinking that are the most vocal and active opponents.

Surveillance advocates dismiss concerns about snooping as paranoia, and say that only metadata and communications data is ever collected. That's not the point. Over on the Ecologist, Paul Mobbs asserts that "metadata is content". It's a view that's very much in line with Edward Snowden's:

The digital footprint you leave online comprises a huge amount of metadata. Put together, it can paint a very clear picture of what you get up to, and makes you very easily identifiable. But there are also security measures that you should consider so you don’t leave yourself open to even more invasive surveillance. There are a number of ways you can proactively protect yourself.

  • Turn off location data on your phone.
  • Disable cookies in your web browser.
  • Don't use Google or other mainstream services.
  • When conducting searches, do so through a more secure network such as Tor (although we have seen that this is not infallible). Try an alternative, non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Change the default password on your router. Failing to do so is like leaving your keys in the front door.
  • Use a password manager, and use it as an opportunity to finally start using really strong, unique password for every site, app, and service you use.
  • When you upload a file to the internet, ensure you remove any metadata that could be used to identify you.
  • Be sensible about what you share online. It's very easy to build up a portfolio of information about a person by piecing together data from numerous Facebook posts, emails, and online profiles.
  • Use an ad-blocker. There are many, many reasons to do this, but cutting back on tracking is a big one.
  • Lock down your Wi-Fi with encryption and an insane password.
  • Consider switching away from Windows. Open source Linux distros are more transparent and far less likely to include backdoors or anything else of concern.

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