Companies like Facebook and Google keep infringing on our rights to privacy. Their secretive and menacing privacy policies are ever reaching into our data, handing over the details of your life to third parties when our contacts agree, giving us little choice over who has our information.
We also have the government in the UK talking about shutting down social media in times of unrest and increasing monitoring of social networks, while the US has recently been trying to push through HR 1981, a far reaching data retention bill. Many other countries in Europe already do this, Denmark and Norway to name two, having adopted the EU data retention directive. Denmark goes further, imposing more monitoring than the directive requires.
We are also tracked online pretty much everywhere. Looked at something on Amazon recently?
Somewhere, sat on a data bank, there is a record of your purchases, planned purchases, and things you've looked at. Does your Amazon account send your confirmations and delivery reports about purchases to Gmail? Now Google know what you've bought, too. Then there's e-tags and similar technology, which even if you delete cookies, they just reproduce them. Your IP is logged by law under the data retention act (UK).
Depending on the country, all of your activities may also be logged. Many countries have such strict censorship or such oppression of rights that you cannot be yourself online without facing privacy intrusions. Be sure to check the data retention that your country has in place to see how extreme the monitoring of your activities is. This may give you reason to follow these steps, if the rest isn't enough to persuade you.
It's time to fight back.
There are a lot of things you can do to protect yourself online, so here are a couple of basics.
Yes, it will take effort, maybe a little money, and a lot of reading up, but if you want to keep your privacy it's worthwhile. It's also a big 'up yours' to governments, Google and others who make a mockery of security around your data, and in some cases, profit from it.
This will not necessarily make you completely anonymous, these are just some basic steps, but it does prevent a lot of your footsteps being traced back to you, giving you some semblance of privacy on the internet.
These suggestions aren't to be taken lightly, and please remember that abusing these things for ill gives the opportunity for governments to impose restrictions on them. Use them responsibly or don't bother. Handle your own data. Yes, this one is really obvious, but many people seem to forget that using services online usually has a stipulation of 'hey we can see what you're doing!'.
Do you use a Gmail account when you sign up to services? What email address do you use for Facebook? For Amazon? For anything? Do you use webmail a lot? Stop. Get yourself a domain.
Be sure to opt out of showing your personal information in the website's whois.
Start pretending to be from another country.
That doesn't mean donning a kimono or wearing a string of garlic, it means getting a VPN. A virtual private network is a tunnelling service. You effectively, using lay terms here, connect to another computer somewhere else in the world and use that IP instead of your own. This makes it much harder for people to log your traffic online. There are plenty of public VPNs available if you believe your security may be at risk due to your habits online.
This is not a suggestion of 'you can go and do illegal stuff because no one knows it's you!', people misusing it in this way risk the legality of the services for those who may actually need them for a number of reasons, or those who want to protect themselves from the prying eyes of companies and governments for their own peace of mind.
There are a lot of people around the world who may be at risk if they were found to be speaking out online, for example. So if you want anonymity to be a little shit, congratulations on making it harder for us who have legitimate reasons.
Tor is a service which makes your web browsing anonymous. This has been a point of contention recently because of the activities of hacktivist groups who openly discuss the use of it. You download and install, make sure all your settings are right, and then you get surfing.
When you open it, it will tell you the IP address that you are surfing from, and it gives you the option of changing your address if you want to. It also features NoScript, another handy app.
Get NoScript here.
This comes as standard with Tor, however you can still use it with Firefox without the use of Tor. It allows you control the scripts, cookies and other code websites try to load. You can blacklist certain things, whitelist certain things, and basically handle the amount of scripts that websites are allowed to load on your computer, hence 'no script'.
From the website: "NoScript selectively, and non-intrusively, blocks all scripts, plug-ins, and other code on Web pages that could be used to attack your system during visits".
Clear your browsing data.
This one is probably obvious but you'd be amazed how many people leave their cookies, temp files, and everything else, just building up on their PC. This is not a clever thing to do.
Cookies and other seemingly harmless files are used to track what you do online. Companies leave a little unique ID in a cookie, which identifies that the person using the site is you. Every time you go to that site, if the cookie is there, they know. This is more data for them.
Regularly clear your browsing data. Not sure if it's clear? Clear it again. Remove cookies, temp files, everything. Fine, you'll be logged out of your favourite sites, but it's a small price to pay and you can always just log back in each time.
Pseudonyms and aliases. Google+ has introduced a 'real names policy'. This means they want you to use your real name, and not a pseudonym on their services. The backlash from users has been immense.
The reason for the policy? Here's what Google'sEric Schmidt had to say. "The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a name service for people. Governments will demand it."
Apparently it's dangerous for you to be anonymous.
Your government will demand that you have no anonymity on the internet and this implies that it justifies the naming policy! This is a dangerous idea, and it's dangerous for Google to impose. Are you in China, using the internet to get a message out about human rights? Good luck with not getting arrested.
There's a system in place to suspend the accounts of people whose names do not fit their policy.
This can still be your name, but if Google says it's not? Well, there goes your account.
A way around this, if you don't want to use your real identity for whatever reason (and many, many people have very legitimate reasons) is to use one that fits their policy. Common or bland looking names such as Jonathon Smithson are unlikely to raise any red flags. So instead of using a handle or nickname (hotgirl928143 will flag, stupid) use a made up name.
A first name, and a last name. Try not to make it too obscure, or too bland. Use your imagination a little. The same goes for on just about any other site. If you really want to be anonymous, do not use your name. Especially if it's uncommon. Make up an identity and use that. Perhaps even make a few.
Don't be sentimental about your online content.
Much like 'clear your browsing data', this one is really obvious too. Many people are incredibly sentimental about the data they have put online. How much information is on your Facebook wall? Guess what! Facebook gets to keep that as long as it's there.
A lot of users only keep it because it's a time line, almost a diary, of the events that have happened over so many years. Records of interactions with your friends. It's like your life written out online. Facebook plays on this, a lot. When you try and either deactivate or delete you account, you get a nice line of your friend's tagged photos with the message 'x will miss you!'. So stay, and minimise the amount of information that is stored on your wall and profile.
You can download your Facebook profile from the account settings. This allows you to download and keep everything that is on your wall if you're a little sentimental. Every documentation of events, every photo, every status update, all in one handy .zip file. It might take a lot of time, but clearing the old posts from your wall will take a lot of data out of Facebook's hands.
Every month or so, download a new backup from the account settings tab, and wipe out the old again. This counts for other 'services' too. Twitter and Google+ statuses. Old forum posts (if you can't delete the post, you can always edit out the content). You don't necessarily have to delete all of it, but have a think about how much of it identifies you, or things about you.
If you have a webmail account, store all of your old emails locally.
You can download them to Outlook or Evolution, and then export them to a file for backup, if your webmail does not offer the chance for you to do this. Then purge the emails stored online. Don't use the same username everywhere. This one is more about hiding in search results and preventing your information from being easily searchable. Although do remember, data being linked across the web is not good for your privacy on the whole.
Does your gaming nickname cross over with places where you speak to your family, or real life friends? I'm sure you can see how separating them can make a lot of sense. What about support groups? If you are signed up to a forum for help with mental health, physical illness, or anything else, does that use the same name as, say, your Facebook account? Is your username the same everywhere? If you search for your username, does it link to a lot of different websites? This means that if someone wants to find out what you've been up to online, it's only a quick Google search away.
This can include potential employers, current employers, co-workers or just about anyone else.
Are you in a country where your rights are under threat? Could some of your information leave you open to discrimination? Think about how your information can be linked up across the internet by the username you use, and how people accessing that information could harm you.
Switch it up a little and use different usernames for different websites, if you don't, you could be very easy to find. If you have ever posted anything personal on a website, forum, anything... it means someone who's run into you on another site can potentially find it. It means employers could find it. If armchair internet detectives can find it, you can bet government can definitely find it.
If you are using a very common nickname, then it's going to be a little harder to join the dots, but still be cautious, and do not think you are hidden from view because of it.
Don't use the same information everywhere.
If you are using just one email address and you use it to sign up to every service you use, that's another way the accounts can be linked and you can be identified. Is your email address searchable on those accounts? Can you be looked up on Facebook with it? What about other places? Much like the username, there are a lot of potential dangers to this.
Get a domain or two, create a bunch of forwarders to your main account, or mailboxes if you have the patience, and use different email addresses in different places on the web. Depending on how much privacy you want to keep, it may be worth getting a few domains. If you keep using the same one, it may start becoming a little obvious.
Don't be an ass.
Just to throw this in again, this information is intended to help people keep their privacy and control of their data in an age where exactly that is at risk. Do not use it to be an idiot.
People appreciate the ability to keep their lives private. The ability to be anonymous. Some may not have the same rights to privacy as we do here in the UK, and it makes advice like this valuable.
Anonymity online is not an excuse to do whatever you want. Acting like a moron is partially why there are attempts to banish it. Don't ruin it for the rest of us.